Digestion 101: What Proper Digestion Should Look Like
Note: This series was originally posted to the blog in 2017, but has been updated to reflect new information.
In my work with clients, it seems that digestion plays a role in most health issues, whether or not you have specific “digestive” symptoms.
To kick off the series, I'm going to run through the digestive process and explain what proper digestion should look like. Most of our problems with digestion can be traced back to a mistake or mishap along the digestive path, so it is vital that we discuss the proper road map for digestion before delving into some of the problems that can arise and discuss how to fix them!
Usually where we go wrong when it comes to digestion is the starting point. Digestion starts with the brain, not when we physically put food into our mouths. When we sit down for a meal, our brain and our senses start to prime our digestive system to begin the digestive process. Therefore, it is so important to take a few deep breaths, smell our food, look at our food, and think about the food we are about to eat. This primes our saliva, digestive enzymes, and stomach acid for the process that's about to begin!
Another important aspect with starting digestion with the brain is switching our autonomic nervous system from the sympathetic (fight or flight) state to the parasympathetic state (rest and digest).
The sympathetic state is most common state that we are in because of our busy, go-go-go lifestyles that never seem to slow down or stop. Our blood flow is shunted from our digestive organs when we are in this state in favor of sending blood to our extremities where we would need it more while in the sympathetic state.
However, when we eat, we want to be in the parasympathetic state, or rest and digest, so that we can properly break down and digest the food we are eating. In order to switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic states, we must slow down, take a few deep breaths, and calm down before our meals. Also eating without distractions, away from your desk or car, is very important as well.
1. Take 5 deep breaths before each meal.
2. Don’t eat while distracted or working on other things
Next, once we have started digestion with our brain and switched to the parasympathetic state, we begin the mechanical process of breaking down food once it enters our mouth. There are two aspects to this process - the physical breakdown of chewing and the chemical breakdown of starch with the salivary enzyme amylase.
Chewing your food really, really, really well is the biggest key here. It could quite possibly fix 90% of your digestive symptoms - that's how important it is! Slow down, chew your food, and make sure you have really broken down the food so that it is liquid before you swallow. If you don't, it only makes the rest of the process more difficult.
1. Chew your food REALLY well!
2. Don’t drink large amounts of liquid with meals.
Once you swallow, the food moves down the esophagus and into the stomach. The food mass is now known as "bolus" and begins to mix with your stomach acid. Your stomach acid pH should be between 1.5-3.0. For those of you unfamiliar with the pH scale, 7 is neutral, and 0-7 is acidic. The closer to 0, the more acidic.
Stomach acid that isn't acidic enough can create a ton of issues because we need stomach acid to breakdown protein, keep pathogens and bad bugs at bay, and enable the release of B vitamins, zinc, iron, and calcium so that they can be absorbed later. In the next post, we will discuss what low stomach acid can do to you, but just know that most of us need more, NOT less, stomach acid in order to continue the digestive process properly.
After the bolus has been "burned and churned" with the stomach acid, it now is known as chyme and moves into the small intestine. Chyme should be very acidic since it just left the stomach, and this acidic quality triggers the release of several important steps in order to continue the digestive process.
First, the acidic chyme triggers the release of bile from the gallbladder in order to break down fats and make them absorbable.
Second, the acidic chyme also triggers the release of the digestive enzymes lipase, protease, and amylase, as well as the hormone insulin. These enzymes are critical to break down food so that nutrients can be absorbed!
And lastly, the acidic chyme triggers the release of a bicarbonate from the pancreas to neutralize the acidity of the chyme before it moves on.
Therefore, it should be quite clear that if the chyme isn't acidic enough because your stomach acid isn't sufficient, it leads to issues with the release of bile, enzymes, insulin, and more! One issue with digestion only continues to cause more harm down the chain.
When food moves through the small intestine, it doesn't flow through the tube-like small intestine like we might imagine. It actually passes through and is pulled down the small intestine by microvilli little "finger" like projections. All the more reason to chew your food well and make sure that you have enough stomach acid because chunks of food will not just pass straight through the small intestine like a completely broken down food will!
After the mass of food leaves the small intestine, it enters the large intestine where our gut bacteria come into play. There are trillions of organisms in our gut that help us digest and absorb the nutrients from our food. We couldn't finish the digestive process without them.
They also break down fiber and help form our stool so that we can eliminate and start the digestive process over again. Therefore, we must have a good ratio of good to bad bacteria in our large intestine in order to make the final steps of the digestive process run smoothly. If we don't have enough of the right bacteria, we might experience constipation, gas, bloating, and other unpleasant digestive symptoms. In the next post, we'll discuss how to build up your good gut bacteria, but for now understand how important they are to the digestive process!
Once food leaves our large intestine, it is eliminated, and the digestive process begins again. It is crazy how many steps there are, but what is most important to remember is that one step leads right into the next. So, if we miss a step or don't take the time to complete each step properly, it only leads to more problems down the line.
Take a look at your digestive process - what is going wrong and how is it different from what proper digestion should look like? In the next post in this series, we'll discuss what can go wrong with digestion and exactly how to fix it!