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Archive for May, 2009

It is often said that the eyes are the window to the soul.  Well, in the same vein, I see that on the physical level, the mouth can be seen as the doorway to good health.  Almost everything that gets into our body, other than what we breathe, to nourish us — or that creates problems and dysfunctions — comes in through the mouth and digestive system.   It is said that we are what we eat, but it is much more accurate to say that we are what we assimilate.  What passes from our digestion into our blood stream and then into our cells is key to almost everything there is about good health. 

 It is estimated that we have somewhere between 40 and 75 trillion (that’s with a T) cells in our body; every one of them is dependent on good raw materials in the form of nutrients that we eat.  Simply put, if we don’t eat well and/or our digestive system is not functioning properly, our cells, and therefore our organs, and therefore we, can’t function as efficiently, as effectively and as healthfully as we are meant to.

Digestion is so important to good health  that I want to spend a little time going over what a properly functioning digestive system would look like and how it would function (even if you have a really good diet, if you aren’t digesting properly, you will still be malnourished).

 So, what is the pathway to good health?  Well, let’s start top-side, with the brain and mouth, and move south.

 Digestion doesn’t technically begin in the mouth, as most people would think – it actually begins in the brain when food is seen, smelled or even imagined.  A whole series of neural signals are sent out when food is even “on the menu”, so to speak.  Saliva creation is one of the first digestive processes that occur when we think about or imagine food – even if the food isn’t physically present.  Saliva contains enzymes that start the breakdown of simple carbohydrates and some fats while the food is still in the mouth. Mucous in the mouth helps to create a bolus, or “food packet” that makes it easier to swallow. 

Other neural signals are sent to the stomach, pancreas and small intestine to alert them that “food is on the way” and to prepare for the upcoming digestive processes. 

Chewing well is important – maybe even critical – to overall digestive health.  This is because chewing our food completely takes a big burden off of other parts of the digestive system (particularly the stomach and small intestine), allows time for proper mixing with the salivary enzymes and helps allow the body to go into a “parasympathetic” or relaxed state, which also greatly aids in good digestion and assimilation.  If your mom ever chided you for not chewing your food completely before you swallowed, this was yet again another time when she was right.

After the food is chewed well and swallowed, it passes from the mouth into the esophagus and then into the stomach.  It does so in a compact ball-like lump or packet called a bolus.  It enters the stomach through the upper valve, or sphincter into the cardiac chamber.  The stomach will swell in size according to the size of the meal and will knead or mechanically massage the bolus as secretions of enzymes and hydrochloric acid (HCl) begin in earnest to break down the nutrients into ever smaller fragments so that they can eventually be assimilated. 

The stomach has two main jobs – to store the food in a “holding area” until it is ready to pass into the small intestines, and to chemically mix the food with digestive enzymes and HCl, forming a thick fluid slurry called chyme.  Most of the digestion that occurs in the stomach works on proteins, which are the most complex and, in many ways, most difficult of all of the macro-nutrients to break down.  If we don’t produce enough HCl, then we can’t properly digest proteins while they are still in the stomach.  Too little HCl also effects the assimilation of other important nutrients, which I’ll discuss in future postings.

We’ve covered a lot of “territory” so far on our digestive journey, with still much more to go.  In the next posting we’ll follow the chyme through the intestinal pathway to see how food gets translated into nutrition.

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