This article covers the basics of digestion from eating to producing a bowel movement.
Do you know when digestion first begins? You might respond "When you chew," but actually, the digestive process begins in your brain upon thinking about that meal you are going to eat. The hypothalamus, which is a gland at the base of brain, begins to send signals to the salivary glands in the mouth and other parts of the digestive tract, to prepare the body for the meal.
Once you are sitting down to eat, obviously chewing the food is essential, and it is often lacking. The yogis say you should chew once for every tooth you have. If you do this, you'll find your food is a paste before you swallow. This is a good exercise to do if you are seeking better health and digestion. Only by chewing the food into a paste and coating it in salivary enzymes, is the beginning of the digestive process optimized. To enhance digestion in this segment, I suggest setting your fork down between bites and chewing food until it is a paste before swallowing.
Enzymes, organic molecules that act like a key unlocking the molecules of food so they can be better broken down and absorbed, are released by salivary glands in the mouth. There are many types of enzymes ranging from ones that break down starches (amylases) to ones that break down fats (lipases), to ones that break down proteins (proteases). When we chew food and coat it in saliva, these enzymes go to work. This mixture is then swallowed and enters the esophagus.
The food, coated with enzymes and saliva, will ideally sit in the bottom of the esophagus and upper stomach for 20-30 minutes. During this time the salivary enzymes are digesting the food and the stomach is creating an acid bath as the stomach expands to receive the meal. To enhance digestion at this phase, you may take a digestive enzyme supplement like Allegany Nutrition's Digestive Enzymes AL90 or AL270 with your meal. This adds extra digestive enzymes to help enhance the breakdown of foods to nutrients.
The acid bath, composed of hydrochloric acid, potassium chloride and sodium chloride, is critical for the digestion of proteins and minerals as it activates pepsin. Without adequate acid bath in the stomach, absorption of proteins and minerals may be insufficient for optimal health. Acid also kills bad bugs you might pick up from travel or from a bad salad bar. Most important to people who suffer from acid reflux: the acid signals the closing of the esophageal sphincter. Without this closing the acid that is made will erupt from the stomach when it uses it's other action for digestion: mechanical. The stomach has strong muscles in it's lining that help churn the food to support better digestion.
Many people with heartburn or acid reflux have insufficient stomach acid and contrary to popular belief, will get relief from doing things to encourage more acid like:
- Adding 1 Tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to a small glass of water with a meal
- Taking Betaine HCl supplement with meals to help increase more acid production. I suggest Ortho Molecular's Betaine and Pepsin or Empirical Labs Betaine HCl.
- Increasing sea salt in their diet like Baja Gold sea salt. (check out this article for signs you need more salt)
If the above items do not agree with the person, or make the reflux worse, then this a sign there is likely too much inflammation occurring in the upper digestive tract for the proper acidic environment to be supported. The solution in this case is to reduce the inflammation. I have found the formula by Metagenics Glutagenics to be very helpful in resolving this stage. Once inflammation is reduced, then steps to encourage stomach acid production may be resumed.
The stomach churns the food and bathes it in acid until it becomes a liquid we call "chyme." The chyme then is released at the bottom of the stomach into the small intestine. While this process is occurring, the body is taking inventory of the composition of the chyme: is it fat? protein? Whatever kind of enzymes are needed to break down the chyme are sent from the pancreas to the small intestine. The pancreas makes a variety of enzymes to break down various nutrients and will send this "cocktail" to the gut where the enzymes coat the chyme. The pancreas also releases sodium bicarbonate to the small intestine.
Simultaneously, bile is secreted from the liver and gall-bladder through the bile duct to the small intestine. Bile helps break fats apart so that the lipase made in the pancreas can break fats down further to be absorbed across the intestinal lining. Bile also helps trigger the bowel movement so that any food waste lower down in the system continues to move out. One other thing about bile and sodium bicarbonate are their alkalinity (meaning they're high on the pH scale, the opposite of acid). Alkaline bile and bicarbonate mixing with acidic chyme (it's acidic because it just came from the stomach) creates a pop and sizzle not unlike those volcanoes at elementary science fairs where baking soda and vinegar are combined. This chemical environment allows for the further breakdown of food into basic nutrients that can be moved across the gut lining in the small intestine.
Many people may have issues with digesting fat rooted back to an issue not making or releasing bile when it's needed. Besides increasing sea salt in the diet (like Baja Gold) and eating adequate fats, there are supplements like BetaPlus by Biotics Research that are very helpful with this process. Our employee, Lucy, wrote a great article all about problems with fat digestion.
When the gall-bladder struggles to release the bile, a person may have gall bladder attacks. While most people choose surgery to remove the gall-bladder, there are natural remedies and changes in diet that can help avoid surgery for some. I come from a line of women with gallbladder attacks and have experienced them myself and have found natural supplements and diet changes to bring relief and resolution of this issue.
The gut lining is only one cell layer thick. This allows for the easy transfer of nutrients into the blood stream below. In this way, the digestive system is like a filter, only allowing nutrients across while indigestible things and bad bugs we might be exposed to continue to move through the colon to be excreted. Many people experience "leaky gut" or hyper-permeable intestines which sets the stage for food sensitivities, infections, auto-immunity and disease to develop. To learn more about leaky gut, check out these other articles (Depression-leaky gut connection, Down in the Bowels of Leaky Gut). One of my favorite products that helps leaky gut is Restore by Biomic Sciences.
The gut biome comprises the bacteria and other microbes that reside throughout the entire digestive tract. The mouth has different species of bacteria than the esophagus, which is very different from the acid-tolerant bacteria in the stomach, for example. The bacteria throughout the gut help with the breakdown and absorption of food and also the production of stool to be excreted as a bowel movement from the colon. Due to the use of anti-biotics, poor diet, and other stressors, it can be very helpful to take a probiotic supplement to help recover digestive health. I suggest a number of probiotics that can be beneficial in this article Best Probiotic to Stop Sugar Cravings and Other Top Probiotic Picks.
Nutrients and water from the food continue to be absorbed as the stool is moved from the small intestine through the colon and finally excreted through the anus. When regular bowel movements such as 2-3 per day do not occur, then the waste from this process can present a stress to the body as it may become overburdened by waste materials that are designed to be moved out but instead become re-absorbed into the blood stream. The key to addressing bowel regularity lies supporting the steps of digestion already discussed and often in diet change. Natural laxatives may remedy the problem but may be habit-forming and cause problems with pro-longed use.
Those with loose stools and diarrhea may also need assistance with proper digestive secretions. However, they also typically require a shift in diet and lifestyle to promote a healthier gut biome and reduced inflammation.
There are many other detailed processes that occur with digestion, but this is it in a "nutshell". As a digestion specialist, I'm here to help you with the best foods to promote proper digestion as well as evaluate your chemistry and digestion for signs that you might benefit from natural support. Click here to schedule an appointment.