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So,  we’ve covered the movement of food/nutrients from the “brain” (as we initially think and perceive the meal we’re about to ingest), into the mouth, down the esophagus and into the stomach, where the first major digestive processes take place.  If our digestive system is healthy, and our liver, gallbladder, pancreas and other supporting organs are functioning optimally, the Chyme, created in the stomach, is now ready to move into the part of the body specifically designed to transfer the nutrients through the blood stream into every cell in our body.   The next part of the journey reminds me a bit of the old 1930’s jazz song by Louis Armstrong, and others: 

The music goes ’round and around
Whoa-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho
And it comes out here

Are you ready for some intestines? 

The small intestines are about 25 feet in length and if spread out, would cover an entire tennis court.  They are made up of the duodenum, the jejunem and the ileum, each having important and distinctive functions. intestine

 

 The duodenum is largely responsible for the breakdown of food in the small intestine, using enzymes from the pancreas.   As the Chyme enters the duodenum, it is also responsible for regulating the rate of emptying the stomach with the help of two major digestive hormones. Secretin and cholecystokinin (or CCK) are released from cells in the duodenal lining as a result of the high acidity and the fats present when the pyloric sphincter or valve (between the stomach and duodenum) opens and releases gastric Chyme for further digestion. These cause the liver and gall bladder to release bile, and the pancreas to release bicarbonate and digestive enzymes such as trypsin, lipase and amylase into the duodenum as they are needed.

The first two parts of the small intestine, the duodenum and jejunum are responsible for most digestion and assimilation, with continued assimilation in the ileum.  These first two sections of the small intestine are completely lined with small finger like projections called villi , where most absorption takes place. If you looked inside the upper intestines, the surface area would look much like a terry-cloth towel, which greatly increases the surface area for optimal absorption (yeh, just like a towel).  Each villus contains a network of capillaries in which the broken-down food particles are absorbed and carried into the blood stream.

Once again, muscular contractions move the Chyme along. Whenever a section of the small intestine becomes stretched, peristalsis (waves of contractions) occurs at spaced intervals. This not only moves the Chyme along but also mixes it with digestive secretions. At the end of the small intestine is the ileocecal valve (another valve separating parts of the digestive system so that material doesn’t easily move the wrong way).   As with the connection between the stomach and the small intestine, various hormones and feedback mechanisms regulate the passage of Chyme through the ileocecal valve into the large intestine. When the ileum becomes stretched and full, the valve opens to allow the passage of Chyme and if the large intestine is too full, the valve remains closed until the bowel empties.

The small intestine meets the large intestine at a sharp right angle bend. To the left is the cecum, a kind of holding tank, and to the right the bowel. Attached to the cecum is the appendix, once considered a non-functioning or “vestigial” organ but now recognized as serving an important immunological function. The appendix contains a high concentration of lymphoid follicles that produce antibodies to help keep the bacteria of the colon from infecting other areas of the body, such as the small intestine and the bloodstream, particularly in early life.

The large intestine or colon is five to six feet long with a diameter of about two inches and is divided by sharp turns into three major parts–the ascending colon on the right hand side of the body, the transverse colon which runs from right to left across the upper abdomen, and the descending colon which carries the mass of digested food downward to the rectum. The purpose of the large intestine is threefold: storage of waste materials and undigested food from the small intestine–not just the breakdown products of what we take in but the residue of secretions, sloughed-off cells and dead bacteria that accumulate during the digestive process; the absorption of water and electrolytes from the food residue; and the further decomposition of solid materials by the action of millions of bacteria. Combined contractions of circular and lengthwise muscles surrounding the colon roll over the fecal materials to ensure that all of it is exposed to the intestinal wall, so that all the fluid can be absorbed. Special cells, called goblet cells lining the large intestine, secrete mucus that protects the walls of the intestine, help maintain alkalinity and provide a medium to hold the fecal matter together.

The final stage of this incredible journey is the movement of the now solid fecal matter from the transverse colon via strong contractions down the descending colon and into the rectum, a process that occurs only a few times each day–usually upon arising in the morning or immediately after breakfast. When these movements force a mass of fecal matter into the rectum, the desire to evacuate is felt.

So, why so much time and space on digestion?  Because it is so critical to almost everything else that goes on in the body.  I’ll be referring back to this information to describe various healthy and dysfunctional conditions, and how they can be supported for continued or improved health and well-being.  Next time, we’ll look at some of the problems that occur with the digestive system that plague millions of people throughout the world, especially in westernized countries,  that can be helped with improved nutrition.

Thanks to Sally Fallon and the Weston A. Price Foundation for parts of the above description
www.westonaprice.org

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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.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get started with this blog.  There are so many topics and ideas relating to good and healthy nutrition that the subject itself can (and does) feel very overwhelming at times.  One of the “Big Ideas” I keep coming back to, over and over, in terms of a “big-picture” look at the complexities of food, health, nutrition and the human condition, is the relationship between what we eat and our basic, genetic, anatomical and physiological make-up.  We actually are “designed” to run most effectively and efficiently on a very specific subset of nutrients that are in tune with the four million year old genetic template of our ancestors; nutrients that for most people in most cultures today are not fully present (and often-times almost non-existent) in the typical daily diet. 

 

There have been three major periods or “epochs” of human diet over the millennia, with as many combinations and permutations and cross-fertilizations as there are human cultures and groupings.  The first (and by far the longest and most influential in terms of our genetic connections with nutrition) is the time of the hunter-gatherer, roughly from about 4 million years ago to about 10 – 12,000 years ago.  This time period set the foundation for who we are as a nutritional species; what the needs are at the system, tissue and cellular level.  Nora Gedgaudas, in her recently published book, Primal Body—Primal Mind goes into great detail describing the nutritional-physiological relationship of our paleo ancestors.  Some 95+% of our genetic patterns are still based on this time period, and for the most part, they are extremely different from what most modern humans eat today.  By far and away the majority of foods and nutrient types that most people take in today were not available to our paleo ancestors, which means they were not available for the largest part of our genetic history.  This includes all dairy products, all cereal grains, all processed foods, most fruits and vegetables, most vegetable oils and almost all sugars and other sweeteners.  Essentially, what we’re eating today is alien to our systems.

 

The second dietary epoch started about 10,000 years ago with the agriculture revolution.  By domesticating animals and plants (especially dairy animals and cereal grains) our dietary input shifted markedly — and our physiology is still trying to catch up.  This was the first step in a long road to chronic disease and dysfunction.  Paleontologists and anthropologists have discovered that there was a significant decline in stature and bone structure of humans during the first part of the agricultural revolution, that parallels an increase in grain-based diets (see Cordain and others: Origin and Evolution of the Western Diet. American Society for Clinical Nutrition. 2005).  Many people today suffer from conditions that result from allergies and reactions to various proteins and other substances in grains and dairy products that our paleo ancestors never experienced.  Ten thousand years seems like a long time, but in evolutionary terms, based on our four-plus million year old ancestry, it isn’t long enough for significant genetic change at the dietary level (Cordain et. al., 2005). Our digestive systems, our sugar-handling relationships, our immune responses, our hormones and our circulatory and nervous systems are all still trying to make sense (and not too successfully) of the major changes in diet experienced over the past 10 millenia. 

 

The last major dietary change (and by far, probably the most drastic) is extremely recent (mostly during the past 200 or fewer years) and has had the most telling and most deleterious impact on our physiology and our health.  This is the age of industrialized, processed, manipulated, adulterated ingredients that most people in the westernized world consume today.  Many, perhaps most, of these “food” items probably should not even be technically called foods – and the relative proportion of these altered nutrients is increasing in our diets at an exponential rate.  Dr. Weston Price, a dentist who witnessed first-hand the effects of modernizing diets on the tooth and jaw structure of his patients, ventured throughout the world in the 1930s comparing indigenous people eating their native and “primitive diets” with their neighbors, cousins, brothers and offspring who were assimilating western diets of processed and canned foods.  His studies and observations are some of the most powerful examples of the effects of diet and nutrition on the human body, mind and spirit.  See Dr. Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration for a clear, enlightening (and yes, sad and sometimes frightening)  description of a major transition in our dietary history. 

 

I will go into much detail about this last dietary milestone, describing how what we eat (and sometimes how we eat) has led to the health and nutritional disasters of our time – and also, more importantly, how we can move back into balance with ancestral diets that are more in-tune with our genetics and biology.

Imagine a time and a place when what we ate supported our natural and intrinsic health and vitality.  A place and a time where we (as a human population) were in balance with the nurturing products of nature in such a way that our physiological needs were essentially met; all of our biological systems (digestion, cardiovascular health, hormonal balances, fatty acid needs, etc.) were supplied with the correct nutrients for vital and long-lasting health.

For most of us, that time and place is hard to imagine; especially hard to imagine in a really personal and tangible way.  Our families, our peers, our cohorts and friends all seem to be touched (directly or indirectly) by one or more of the major maladies of modern culture – heart disease, cancer, diabetes, chronic pain, digestive disorders, obesity, depression, anxiety, stress, etc., etc.  – to such a great extent that it seems to be part and parcel of our everyday lives.  It’s as if this were the “natural” condition.  And all of this, despite the fact that we “supposedly” have the most technologically advanced medical and health system the world has ever seen.  Most of us know that while we are told that “we are the greatest country in the world” over and over, and part of us actually believes it (or wants to), that there is something drastically wrong with the big picture; something askew between our supposed “abundance” and our ability to remain in balance with the sources of vital nutrition that are supposed to support us.

Now, imagine being blessed with all of the tools and techniques available that could quickly and easily determine the kinds of nutritional and physiological support that our bodies (and minds) need and want.  Tools such as the knowledge and connection with what our ancestors ate to remain in vital health and well being; methods of “asking” the body to give feedback as to what, specifically, is out of balance, and what kinds of nutritional support is required to re-balance it; tools that help us to tune into our behaviors, moods and emotional states in such as way as to determine, again, how to bring forth balance and vitality.  It’s my belief that we have all the tools (and then some) to move all of us into a better state of health and well being.

Part of the purpose of this blog is to explore the gap between the above first two paragraphs.  Was there a time when our ancestors were really in balance, nutritionally, with their environments in a long-term and sustainable way?  And if so, what has brought us to such a divergent outcome and what can we do to move back into balance?  Another purpose of this blog is to explore the resources we all have available to us to “turn things around” in our own lives and (hopefully) in the lives of those we are close to.

I would like to explore, partly, what brought us to where we are, and more importantly, to look at what we are able to change to “right the sinking ship” of poor health and dysfunctional physiological processes.  We’ll look at some of the major “myths”, stories and down-right lies about health and nutrition that have been created and perpetrated over time, at some of the specific tools that can help many to “rebalance” the ship, and at specific foods, herbs, supplements and “ways of eating” that can move us from dysfunction to wellness.

Please comment freely, ask questions and make specific requests for future topics.