We have all heard the saying, “You are what you eat.” Taken at face value, this statement can be somewhat misleading. A more accurate statement would be, “You are what you absorb.” Healthy food choices are very important, but those nutritious foods won’t do you much good at all and could actually be the source of all sorts of health problems if you are not digesting them properly.
Even if nutrition is a high priority for you and you spend considerable time and effort (and money) eating fresh, organic, nutrient-dense foods and taking daily vitamins, you may not be absorbing the nutrients that your body desperately needs to stay healthy. You may be passing these essential nutrients right out of your body through your urine and stools. In fact, many people have dysfunctional digestive systems and don’t even know it.
Some symptoms of digestive dysfunction are gas, bloating or belching after meals, chronic or frequent fatigue, arthritis, dry or itchy skin (eczema), asthma, migraines, food and environmental allergies, brain fog, ADD, and many other illnesses. If you suffer from any of these conditions, you might want to take a closer look at your digestion.
The digestive system consists of two main components: a chemical component and a mechanical component. The chemical component consists of digestive enzymes and gastric juices produced by the mouth, stomach, pancreas, liver and small intestine. The mechanical component – peristalsis– is what pushes the food down through your gastrointestinal tract once it leaves your mouth and enters your esophagus.
The majority of digestive problems begin with a dysfunction of the chemical component. This typically consists of an enzyme deficiency and/or an imbalance in gut flora (bacteria). Both issues are promoted and caused by poor diet, chronic stress, metabolic or endocrine disorders, use of certain prescription drugs, or simply the aging process.
A deficiency in stomach acid (hydrochloric acid (HCL)) or your protease enzymes will inhibit your ability to break down proteins. This particular deficiency can lead to brain chemistry imbalances, loss of lean muscle tissue, acid reflux (or GERD), impaired immunity, food allergies, and even more serious metabolic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Maintaining optimum enzyme production is tricky because it relies on the presence of other key factors known as co-factors. These are your vitamins and minerals. A deficiency in just some of these cofactors can be enough to inhibit the digestion and absorption process.
But how do you get these vitamins and minerals out of your food if you already lack the enzymes to break down the food? While this may seem like a catch-22 situation, it can often be handled by eating fermented, enzyme-rich foods with your meal, such as fermented vegetables or apple cider vinegar, or by taking a broad-spectrum enzyme supplement with your meals. An enzyme supplement should contain, at the minimum, protease, lipase, amylase, cellulase, lactase, sucrase, and maltase.
You know what else helps to break down foods in your gut? Beneficial bacteria known as “gut flora .” Keep this in mind: there are more bacteria in your intestinal tract than there are cells in your entire body. That’s over one hundred trillion organisms with a collective weight of about four pounds – roughly the size of our liver. When this internal ecosystem is in proper balance, it not only promotes optimal digestion, it helps fight infectious disease, normalizes serum cholesterol and triglycerides, breaks down and rebuilds hormones that help to reduce inflammation, manufactures many vitamins in our foods and bodies, and increases the bioavailability of essential minerals like calcium and magnesium. These bacteria aid directly in the digestive process, digesting lactose, breaking down proteins into amino acids, and helping to regulate peristalsis and regular bowel movements.
The causes of imbalance in this gut flora—a condition known as dybiosis—are similar to the causes mentioned above for enzyme deficiencies. Another way of describing dysbiosis is that the bad guys outnumber the good guys. The solution may be simple: eat more fresh, whole foods and take a daily probiotic supplement, consisting of acidophilus and bifidus at the minimum. Sometimes, depending on the nature of your particular imbalance, the use of natural antibiotic or anti-fungal substances in addition to more specific probiotics may be necessary. For example, if the imbalance is fungal in nature, as in a particularly insidious condition known as candidiasis, a more targeted protocol consisting of multiple stages may be required before it can be eradicated and your gut flora restored.
A dysfunction of the mechanical or peristaltic component of the digestive system can be caused or exacerbated by inadequate consumption of water and dietary fiber. The minimum recommended daily fiber intake is 25 grams. In the diet this fiber comes from vegetables, fruits and grains. If you find it difficult to consume enough fiber-rich foods, taking a fiber supplement may be necessary. The minimum daily water intake should be ½ ounce for every pound of body weight. One way to verify that your peristaltic component is functioning properly is if you are having one to two bowel movements per day or the volume of your stool is at least 12 inches. Sorry to get so graphic, but damnit this is important shit!
The most effective way to ensure optimum digestion is to practice “The Yoga of Eating“, which is simply developing a practice of conscious eating so that you are aware of which foods are problematic for your gut as well as your overall well-being (for more on this, follow the hyperlink above). Another way is to limit your consumption of processed foods, such as breads, pastas, cereals, and refined sugars. These foods deprive your body of vital, enzyme-friendly nutrients and disrupt peristalsis. And still other ways to prevent digestive problems are to avoid overcooking your foods, limit your exposure to food-borne and environmental toxins and reduce overall stress.
If you have difficulty determining where your specific problem lies, seek the guidance of a Certified Nutritional Consultant.