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Posts Tagged ‘assimilation’

Now that we’ve looked at how a digestive system should work, let’s  look at what is all-too-much the reality for most people in our culture today.  Some 60-70 million people in the US are affected by digestive diseases, (this does not count the millions of other digestive ailments that are not classified as disease).  14 million people are hospitalized each year for digestive problems (9% of all hospitilizations) and 6 million people go through digestive hospital diagnostic and therapeutic procedures (14 percent of all hospital procedures).  This is clearly no small or laughing matter (not even a belly laugh).     

antacids Perhaps the largest class of over-the-counter and prescriptions medications taken today are for digestive related ailments.  Just think of the tons of antacids, acid blockers, gas relievers, bloat relievers, anti-flatulance medications, etc. that are consumed each year (each day??).  And think of the millions of gastric and gut procedures that are done each year from endoscopies to colonoscopies to by-passes (see above).   Many(most??) of these should not be needed if we just knew how to care for our gut by choosing and properly preparing healthful nutrient dense foods that support good digestive functioning.

 So, what happens that creates such dismal digestive health for so many, and what can be done to improve matters – actually to improve things very significantly?  Most digestive problems start from years of abusing our “inner” tube with poor diet, poor eating habits, unconsciousness and stresses of all kinds.

 Remember that digestion starts in the mind/brain, even before we start to eat.  That means that a good place to start to heal digestive disorders is through our thoughts and actions, before a meal.  We have two parts to our autonomic, or “automatic” nervous system.  The first is our fight-or-flight, get ready for action system, called the sympathetic nervous system.  This one is related to stress, which amongst other things, greatly slows down our digestive processes.  The second is the parasympathetic system, which is activated when we are calm, relaxed, meditating, in prayer, etc.  When we get ready to eat, we want to be in parasympathetic mode – this is why so many pre-industrial cultures had customs and traditions that include prayer, slowing down, connecting with family and friends, etc.  It leads to good and healthy digestion.  As a culture, we are sympathetically stressed, eating quickly, swallowing without chewing, eating on the run, being unconscious about eating, and, of course, eating fast food. 

 If you don’t take the time to properly chew your food (about 30 seconds), the brain doesn’t get the message to trigger the proper digestive processes.   Adequate saliva production is not triggered, which affects enzyme production in the mouth affecting the initial breakdown of carbohydrates.  This really is the start of a chain reaction that goes all the way through the digestive system.  Lack of salivary enzymes can reduce the pancreatic enzyme amylase, so that starches are not completely broken down in the small intestine, leaving undigested starches that enter the colon, that can feed candida and other dysbiotic organisms farther down the digestive tract.  Sounds like a mess, doesn’t it?  Well…things can get even worse.

So, what about stomach acid?

 If you watch TV commercials, it would seems as if everyone in America has way too much stomach acid and we all need to do everything we can to bring it down to a reasonable level (and of course, so we can eat anything and everything we want to without ill effects).  In fact, as mentioned above, acid blockers and antacids are amongst the top prescription and over-the-counter medications taken today.

 But, in reality, the stomach is really all about acid; it should be highly acidic to function optimally, and there are all kinds of problems that are created if it isn’t acid enough.  The normal pH of a healthy stomach is between 1.5 and 3.0 (battery acid has a pH of about 0.8) and acid blockers and antacids will almost always bring that up to a higher or more alkaline level.   The problem with most Americans in this regard is not too much stomach acid, but rather, not enough.  Studies have shown that approximately 90 percent of Americans produce too little stomach acid, or HCl.  Dr. Jonathan Wright, MD, came to this conclusion using a small telemetric device dropped into the stomach of thousands of patients.  Dr. George Goodheart, DC, came to essentially the same conclusion using kinesiology and functional assessments.  Factors such as stress, excess carbohydrate consumption, nutrient deficiencies, allergies, and excess alcohol can inhibit HCl production.

 So, what happens if you do not produce enough HCl?

The gut, and particularly the stomach with a very high acid level, is our first line of physical defense against entering pathogenic microorganisms.  Lowering of HCl reduces or eliminates much of that defense.  Yeast, prions, viruses, parasites, etc., are all little proteins, and when the pH is correct in the stomach, pepsin (an enzyme) digests these little microorganisms and they become food.  When the pH is not correct, an environment is created in which these organisms thrive and raise havoc, not only in the stomach, but throughout the digestive system, and ultimately, throughout the body.

 If there is not enough acid in the stomach, foods do not get broken down (carbohydrates will ferment, fats rancidify and proteins will putrefy).  These maldigested foods cause a reflux, or backward flow, into the esophagus.  This is not caused from too much acid, as is commonly thought, and rammed down our throats (literally) by the pharmaceutical and much of the medical industry, but by not being acid enough.  Acid blockers and antacids just exacerbate the problem.  If the stomach acid were strong enough, the digestion would take place normally, and pass on into the small intestine without that constant feeling of indigestion, bloating, gas and nausea.  The reason the esophagus experiences the burning is because the partially digested foods do not transit properly, and then move back up toward the esophagus.  They are acid (maybe pH 4-5), but not acid enough for good digestion.

 Next time, we’ll look at the effect of maldigestion on the rest of the gut, from the small intestine to the colon, and discuss what can be done to bring the entire system back into balance.

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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.

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