Vibrant health involves doing seven things, which includes eating healthy, or eating fresh food, which is food that comes straight from the land or seas. But eating fresh food is just the start — not a guarantee — of obtaining nutrients. There are two factors to consider: 1. How well your body digests food and 2. The health of your intestinal tract. In today’s podcast, I’ll discuss the science that explains the process of how your body breaks down food and assimilates nutrients.
Today, I’d like to talk about why eating healthy is the start, not a guarantee, of vibrant health. Say that you’re sitting down to eat a healthy meal. I advocate eating what I call fresh food, or food that comes straight from the land or seas. Not processed food, which doesn’t come straight from the land or seas. Fresh food is packed with the most nutrients, whereas processed food is not.
So, say you’re sitting down to eat a delicious fresh food meal. Perhaps it’s a salad that has salmon, fresh greens, onions, some other vegetables, dressed in olive oil, lemon, and salt and pepper. A meal rich in nutrients. But how does your body actually obtain the nutrients?
There are two factors to consider: 1. How well your body digests food and 2. The health of your intestinal tract.
First, let’s talk about digestion. Reading from The Simple Seven book:
Fresh food might be packed with nutrients, but your body can’t use them unless they’re broken down and digested.
Digestion is the body’s most complex process. Made up of a number of steps, digestion takes six to eight hours to complete. Failure in any step results in indigestion and the associated discomforts – heartburn, stomach pain, cramping, and bloating. Indigestion makes your body sick and have to work hard to recover. Most importantly, you’re missing out on getting the nutrients from the fresh food you just ate.
Here’s how digestion works:
Step 1: Digestion begins in the mouth, when food is chewed. Chewing mixes food with saliva, which is rich in digestive enzymes that break down carbs in the first step of carb digestion. Chewing also breaks down food into tiny pieces, making digestion easier in the following steps.
Step 2: Digestion continues in the stomach. Chewed food is swallowed and passed into the stomach for the next step of digestion. Stomach muscles churn chewed food in stomach acid for up to two hours, mostly breaking down protein. More stomach acid is produced when food hasn’t been chewed well and needs to be “chewed” more. Stomach acid is strong enough to kill harmful microorganisms that might be present in food, such as E. coli and salmonella.
Step 3: Digestion is completed in the small intestine. Food is passed from the stomach into the small intestine for the final step of digestion. Organs that assist with digestion connect into the small intestine. The pancreas supplies a mixture of digestive enzymes that breaks down protein, fat, and carbs. The gallbladder provides bile, which helps break down fat (the liver produces bile and stores it in the gallbladder). Friendly bacteria that live in the small intestine also break down food. Together, digestive enzymes, bile, and friendly bacteria surround tiny food particles and break them down into nutrients. Finally, nutrients are packaged and passed through the walls of the small intestine into the bloodstream and delivered to the body.
Step 4: The bowel clears digestive waste. Digestive waste is passed from the small intestine into the bowel. Though digestion has been completed by this point, the last of the water and minerals in stool are absorbed through the bowel walls into the bloodstream and delivered to the body. Digestive waste is cleared from the body through a bowel movement.
That completes the four steps of digestion.
It’s important to note that stress triggers a part of the brain that stops digestion, guaranteeing indigestion. That’s why it’s so important to take time to sit down and relax and eat your meals. This is especially important eating lunch in the middle of what may be a stressful work day. I worked in the corporate world for most of my professional life and was in the habit of eating lunch at my desk, maybe for 30 minutes, or in a hurry if I ate out, discussing work matters with colleagues, in effect, continuing work during lunch, instead of taking a break from work.
In one of my last corporate jobs I broke these habits by routinely taking a full hour lunch break outside the office, usually by myself. Given the highly stressful nature of the job and needing to be “on” non-stop, I used the hour to unwind and recharge listening to music or taking a short nap, relaxing, and eating lunch slowly, chewing my food well, and enjoying the flavor of the food, all aiding with digestion.
Second, digestion is also affected by the health of your intestinal tract. Reading from The Simple Seven book:
The intestinal tract, so named because it’s mostly made up of the small and large intestines (the bowel), is about 35 feet in length and mostly tube-like, beginning in the mouth and running down the esophagus into the pouch-like stomach, down to the small intestine, about 30 feet in length, which weaves from side to side down the abdomen, connecting into the bowel, about 5 feet in length and thicker in width than the small intestine, traversing up the right side of the body, across the abdomen, and down the left side, ending in the rectum.
Here’s what a healthy intestinal tract should look like and how it should function:
The lining of the stomach, the small intestine, and the bowel should all be smooth and clean and clear of anything but the fresh foods and drinks that pass through them.
During digestion, water in fresh foods and drinks should hydrate and thicken the lining of the stomach, designed to protect the underlying tissues from the damage of stomach acid.
During digestion, the stomach should produce adequate acid to break down food.
Sufficient digestive helpers should be available during digestion. The pancreas (which is attached to the small intestine) should adequately produce digestive enzymes that break down proteins, carbs, and fats. Bile produced by the liver and stored in the connecting gallbladder (which connects to the small intestine) should be released into the small intestine to help digest fats. Water, vitamins, and minerals should be available to activate digestive enzymes.
Digested nutrients should leave the small intestine properly. The lining of the small intestine should maintain a single layer of cells that are tightly connected together but allow digested nutrients to slip in between and pass into the bloodstream and lymphatic system to be delivered to the body.
Friendly bacteria should thrive in the small intestine and the bowel. A small population of friendly bacteria should live in the small intestine, and a large population should live in the large intestine.
Substances should move through the bowel walls unobstructed. Water and minerals should pass through the bowel walls into the bloodstream to be delivered to the body, and cellular waste in the bloodstream should be absorbed through the bowel walls.
Digestive waste should be cleared from the bowel cleanly and effortlessly, leaving nothing behind.
Instead, this is what’s typical:
Chemicals and toxins from processed foods and drinks damage the walls of the intestinal tract, making them irritated, inflamed, poked with holes, and punched with pockets, causing pain and trapping gas.
The stomach doesn’t produce enough acid for proper digestion, and the lining becomes ulcerated from not thickening to protect the underlying tissues.
Friendly bacteria populations in the small intestine and bowel are destroyed – by stress, toxins in processed food, and antibiotics. Antibiotics destroy bacteria – all bacteria, including the friendly bacteria living in the intestines, explaining why taking probiotics (friendly bacteria) is recommended after taking antibiotics. By the way, a common misunderstanding is that antibiotics kill also viruses, because antibiotics are often prescribed for problems related to viruses, such as sinus infections, colds, and the flu. Taking antibiotics can help to boost the immune system by reducing the burden of simultaneously combatting unfriendly bacteria, but antibiotics do not kill viruses.
When friendly bacteria are destroyed, unfriendly bacteria, parasites, funguses, and other unfriendly microorganisms overpopulate, stealing nutrients from the body, and toxifying the intestines with their waste, (understand that these living microorganisms also need food and create their own waste) impairing digestion and the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
Parasites are more common than you think. They can be picked up in raw food, including raw vegetables. Most parasites are microscopic. They produce side effects such as fatigue, muscle pain, flatulence, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and weakness.
The most common parasitic overgrowth is candida, which can develop from taking antibiotics. A type of fungus, candida pokes through the lining of the intestines (called “leaky gut syndrome”), a condition in which the cells of the lining of the intestine are damaged and malfunction, allowing toxins, unfriendly microorganisms, and undigested food to pass into the bloodstream and lymphatic system. The body recognizes the substances as foreign (including the undigested food), so the immune system responds by inducing inflammation of the intestines (signaling damage). Digestion is halted, so the body is deprived of nutrients. Symptoms of candida overgrowth include fatigue, brain fog, and insomnia.
Constipation leads to waste building up on the bowel walls, inhibiting proper bowel function, toxins and parasites accumulating, minerals and water unable to be absorbed through the walls, and cellular waste unable to be cleared from the body.
So, as you can see, there’s more to consider regarding obtaining nutrients from the food we eat. There’s a little more work to do beyond just eating healthy. The good news is that eating fresh food alone can, over time, alleviate most of these problems. Eliminating parasites and restoring a healthy flora may require a little more work. I’ve provided details in The Simple Seven book.
A final note: There’s even more that goes on in the intestinal tract than digestion. We think of digestion as the only function of the intestinal tract, but significantly more happens there. It is home to more than 100 million neurons (which are nerve cells) and nicknamed the body’s “second brain” by scientists. It contributes to our capacity to fight off illness – the body dedicates more than 70 percent of its immune system to fighting off invaders within the intestinal tract. That’s according to an article that was published in Scientific American, entitled, “Think Twice: How the Gut’s ‘Second Brain’ Influences Mood and Well-Being.” What happens in the intestinal tract ensures proper digestion, absorption of nutrients, good immune system functioning, and helps with hormonal balance, cognition, and mood.
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The information in this post is to be used for educational purposes only. It is not intended to serve as a substitute for professional medical advice or to prevent, cure, or heal any illness or disease. You should always see your doctor or health practitioner.