HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR DIGESTION
Author: Dr. Kaylee Driedger ND
Food and nutritional status make up the foundation of our overall health picture. Without proper nutrition our organs and systems are unable to function optimally at a cellular level, setting off a cascade of potential side effects detrimental to our overall wellbeing. Equally important to the foods we consume is what happens to them after ingestion. Continue reading to find out what your digestive system should look like and how you can improve it!
Where does digestion start?
Mechanical breakdown by the teeth and the mouth is a good guess, but even before that happens something called the cephalic phase of feeding takes place. This is the ideal starting point of the digestive pathway; however, it’s not always activated the way people eat today. The cephalic phase takes place in the brain and gets the body ready for food. Have you ever noticed that your mouth begins to salivate before consuming a richly aromatic meal? This is the first stage of a properly functioning digestive system. The issue in today’s society is that our go-go-go mentality rarely allows enough time to sit down for a proper meal break two to three times a day, instead we rely on quick-fix food sources. When we don't prepare the food ourselves the brain has little time to prepare the body. Fast food restaurants allow us to eat foods that normally require a certain amount of time to prepare. Ideally, the time while our food is cooking is supposed to be reserved for the body to get its digestive juices flowing. Salivary gland production of amylase increases in the mouth, which facilitates the breakdown of starches, mastication, and swallowing.
Food then travels down the esophagus, through the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) landing in the stomach. With adequate hydrochloric acid (HCL) production, the LES is stimulated to shut and prevent backsplash of stomach contents up the esophagus. Without appropriate HCL production and therefore closure of the LES, people may experience the irritating symptoms of heartburn. HCL is very important to the digestive process- it also breaks down proteins in the stomach, activates the enzyme pepsinogen into pepsin for further protein digestion as well as kills any bacteria that has entered the stomach.
From here the bolus of food passes through a second sphincter into the small intestine. Further enzymatic digestion occurs here with secretions from the pancreas, while bile from the liver emulsifies fats. This is the portion of the GI tract that absorbs nutrients, vitamins, ions, and water. Common digestive disturbances that occur in this portion of the track include celiac disease, leaky gut, and food sensitivities. The small intestine then transitions into the large intestine, the colon and the rectum for elimination. The main function taking place in the large intestine is dehydration and compaction of the indigestible materials that will soon become a bowel movement. Eating foods rich in fiber (such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) along with plenty of water helps to keep bowel movements both soft and regular while also cleaning the colon.
The end of the tract. How many bowel movements a day are normal?
The biggest issue I see in my practice around bowel movements with my patients is not having enough. Constipation can be a debilitating and uncomfortable condition that some people, unfortunately, learn to cope with for so long that it becomes their new normal. Anything less than one bowel movement per day is considered abnormal. My rule when treating patients is to regulate their digestion to achieve a minimum of one bowel movement per day before we address any other concerns. Your stool should be soft, formed and easy to pass; it should be without blood, mucus or excessive undigested food material and pain. An appropriate rule of thumb is one to three per day following these parameters. Should you fall outside these guidelines, my recommendation would be to seek attention to this matter since a poor digestive system can be the starting point for many other detrimental and chronic conditions.
Lastly, let's take a look at the impact of the nervous system on the digestive tract. Many people are aware that the autonomic nervous system consists of two pathways- the sympathetic system which controls our fight or flight stress responses, and the parasympathetic system in charge of rest and digestive functions. We do however have a third completely separate branch of the autonomic system which operates independently of the central nervous system. The enteric nervous system has been coined “the second brain”. Derived from the same tissues as the brain and located within the walls of the digestive tract, the enteric nervous system communicates with the central nervous system via the tenth of twelve cranial nerves- the vagus nerve. Communication is achieved through the activation of more than 30 neurotransmitters. Dopamine prevents gut motility and stimulates digestive secretions. Serotonin is the most abundant in the GI system- in fact, more than 90% of serotonin in the body is produced within the cells of the gut, not the cells of the brain. Serotonin promotes motility and regulates mood and anxiety. Acetylcholine stimulates smooth muscle contractions and increases mucosal blood flow. GABA is both excitatory and inhibitory, modulating motility and mucosal function. Stress has a huge impact on the functioning of the gut. When stressed, the body is in sympathetic dominance. Blood flow is shunted away from the digestive tract, limiting digestive functions, reducing diaphragmatic support of the LES leading to symptoms of reflux and esophageal spasm, and decreasing gastric emptying with increased colonic peristalsis which creates gas and bloating. Motility within the small intestine decreases in combination with an increase in cortisol, which changes the physiology within the system and creates a gut wall hyper permeable to food, bacteria, and toxins responsible for conditions like leaky gut and IBS. These are just a few examples of the impact different hormones and neurotransmitters have on our gut and the way we process foods.
So what can we do to ensure the health of our digestive system and prevent chronic disease?
- Eat a whole foods-based diet. Nutritiously dense foods nurture and repair the body. Processed and packaged foods are filled with preservatives and stripped of nutritional value.
- Consume plenty of water. Limit stimulants and processed and carbonated beverages.
- The 5 R’s to healthy digestion
- Remove irritants: Remove foods that cause irritation and pain to the body. Unsure what foods may be responsible for your digestive pains? Food sensitivity testing can be a quick answer to foods that don’t sit well in your body. Keep in mind that the most common food allergens are: eggs, wheat, dairy, corn, and sugar.
- Replace deficiencies: Increase hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes to properly activate certain parts of the GI system and digest foods properly.
- Re-inoculate the normal gut flora: Consume more pre and probiotic-rich foods.
- Repair intestinal lining: Long term inflammation and irritation in the gut damages the cellular wall. Repairing damages reduces the incidences of food sensitivities, leaky gut and more.
- Relax: Decrease stress. Consume foods in a rest and digest state, sitting and being present with your meal and not multitasking, watching TV or on the go.
Small changes to the way we eat and the foods we choose to consume can make a huge difference in the way we feel. I’m always happy to assist my patients in their health and wellness journey. For further questions or booking inquiries, I can be found on Instagram @dr.kayleedriedger.nd and in clinic at www.theiv.ca.
Disclaimer: Kits Scrubs Inc. website and blog not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. As health and nutrition research continuously changes, we do not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of any information presented on this website. Please talk to your healthcare provider for medical advice and concerns.
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