How your Digestive System really works and How you Can Improve it

digestive tract and note asking

If you were to ask the average person how their digestive system works, they would probably give you a very rudimentary explanation - likely woefully oversimplified. This makes sense as our understanding is likely based on our 9th grade Biology class, lol. In our culture, we aren't ever encouraged to explore what this extremely intricate process entails. 

 

We just assume it all works the same, no matter what. Well that’s most certainly not the case.

 

Most conventional healthcare providers do not emphasize the importance of this extraordinarily detailed biochemical process to our overall health. They certainly aren’t teaching you the interconnectedness of a poorly functioning digestive system and how it affects most chronic health dynamics - even the ones that aren’t obviously related to your gastrointestinal system.

 

I once had a GI specialist tell me that he “doesn’t get involved with bowel movements much”. Imagine that? A GI specialist telling you that he doesn’t get involved much with your main problem? The problem that brought you to him in the first place? True story. I still shudder at that exchange. 

 

What if I told you that the health of your digestive system is the hallmark of your well-being? Or that the sequence that is initiated with eating or drinking, actually smelling your food, sets off a wild cascade complete with signaling and dependence on all sorts of nutrients and regulatory states? And if there is an issue anywhere in that cascade, your digestion will be affected?

 

This might make sense to you, intellectually, but most have become so desensitized to its importance and have had abnormal digestion for so long that they accept this as normal. Well, we are here to change that narrative and get you on the road to better digestion and health and feeling better! 

 

Digestion may be an involuntary process. In other words you don’t have to consciously do anything for it to occur, but your choices play a major role. This is largely because your vagus nerve, which runs from your gut to your brain, runs the show. It’s part of your enteric nervous system which drives your digestion plus heart rate, respiratory rate. It’s even involved in sneezing. It is bidirectional but the research shows that there is more information carried from your gut to your brain. The health of this nerve is crucial to not only gut health but overall functioning as well. It’s job is to help us switch and STAY in a rest and digest state. Just like with any other system, if it is not working properly it affects the other systems in your body. It’s all interconnected.

 

Here is a brief overview of how a healthy digestive system should work:

  • It begins in the mouth and ends in the small intestine. It actually begins in your head when you smell your food and begin to salivate to prepare the initiation of digestion but let’s not split hairs - lol. We, then, chew food and mix it with saliva, which contains enzymes that break down the starches in the food. If you’ve ever chewed your food really well, you can actually taste the “sweetness” of the starch breaking down. But the trick is to actually chew your food. And well…not “inhale” it like most people do.
  • The food then travels through the esophagus to the stomach where hydrochloric acid or stomach acid and enzymes break down proteins. From the stomach, the food moves to the small intestine where the majority of digestion and absorption of nutrients takes place. The small intestines shouldn’t have many bacteria but rather a healthy mucous layer to help facilitate the bulk of digestion and absorption. 
  • Bile from the liver helps to break down and absorb fats, while enzymes from the pancreas help break down carbohydrates and proteins. Chronic problems such as fatty liver, mainly caused by a diet high in refined, processed carbohydrates can cause these organs to function suboptimally and become “sluggish”. This impedes this very important part of digestion and leads to not feeling well and losing the ability to digest but to also detoxify and protect you from outside toxins such as pathogenic bacteria and inside toxins such as cellular waste. Our gallbladder kindly houses this bile for us but we all know just how disposable this poor organ is if it’s giving any problems. For the love of God - it’s not disposable! A “diseased” gallbladder doesn't happen overnight. You will sorely miss your gallbladder and should do anything and everything in your power to keep your body parts. This is compounded by the fact that proper support of the body after the loss of this organ is almost never offered. It’s more like, just deal with it and don’t eat “fatty” foods. Our poor appendix suffers much of the same fate. Recent research shows that our appendix actually stores good bacteria to be secreted into our digestive system to support it in times of need such as infection. I wish we aimed for rehabilitation of these organs as opposed to reactive removal when possible. 
  • The waste passes on to the large intestine where bacteria help to break down the remaining food particles. Finally, the waste is eliminated as either solid or liquid. This can only occur if your colon is healthy and able to receive all the signals necessary to evacuate your waste normally, otherwise you end with constipation or diarrhea or both.

In a perfect world, all organs and your GI system including your vagus nerve are functioning optimally. That’s actually required for seamless digestion as described to occur. But many, many of us do not experience this. And the bumps in the road to optimal digestion cause many to feel bloated, sluggish and exhausted after eating.

You should feel energized after eating!

Yes - energized and… NOT bloated

NOT distended with abdominal discomfort

NOT tired or sluggish and NOT gassy. 

Imagine that?

So many walk around experiencing poor digestion and for so long that they don't even know how they would feel if all systems were operating optimally. Think about that for a minute…

 

There are actions and choices that you can make to help begin to improve your digestive system.

 

Here are our top 3 tips to improve digestion: 

  • Choose whole nutrient dense foods - this will help you nourish your body and mind. It helps maintain a healthy gut as foods high in fiber such as fruits and vegetables promote the health of your gut microbiome and lining, They also help promote healthy motility. Protein contains critical compounds to all biochemical processes in our bodies - our bodies need this to rebuild and repair and our digestion cascade is what’s responsible for making them available to us. Ensuring that you are also getting enough healthy fats is essential. Healthy fats can include avocado, olive oil, coconut oil or milk, fatty fish such as salmon or sardines, flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts to name a few. They will also help us to feel more satiated after eating plus they are a great source of energy. Many of us don't realize just how much processed food in the form of refined carbohydrates we are eating. Taking an honest inventory of what you are eating will allow you to ditch them and truly nourish yourself with whole foods. If it comes from a package or a box it’s a no, if it comes from the earth it’s a go. Good words to live by for the majority of your way of eating.
  • Improve your eating hygiene - This is a BIG one! Prioritize the process of eating in its entirety. This is the only part of digestion that you can control in real time. This means that you set aside time to eat a well prepared meal at a table and not in your car. You create mindfulness around the act of eating which involves taking a few cleansing breaths before eating. It also involves chewing your food slowly and fully. For nearly everyone this is going to mean slowing down. This will maximize your body’s ability to digest as will limiting your fluid intake at the time of eating. A small amount of filtered clean water is fine but not what most are accustomed to here.
  • Manage your stress - Another really BIG one! We cannot digest under stress. If you’ve ever tried to eat something while under stress you can probably recall getting a stomach ache and not feeling well. This is because when you are under stress your body is not thinking about eating, it’s thinking about surviving. They are polar opposite when it comes to the type of nervous system state we need for either process to occur. When under stress your body halts your stomach acid production because you don’t need it at that time. It also adversely affects your vagus nerve. The chronic stress that most of us experience causes this to be the case for many on a Monday afternoon and most days of the week. This affects digestion and nutrient absorption significantly. Intentional breathing can be a great place to start to regulate your nervous system and decrease stress while you work on larger issues that may be contributing to your stress. If you concentrate on breathing deeply to allow your belly to rise and exhaling slowly for twice as long as you inhaled while your belly goes down, you will signal to your body and mind that you are safe. Doing a few rounds of this kind of breathing will improve your digestion exponentially.

 

As with most healing, it takes time. Aside from implementing these key lifestyle modifications to improve your digestive system, you can also consider some supplements to help. As always check in with your healthcare provider to make sure you do not have any contraindications to these.  Here are a few to consider:

  • Digestive bitters - these herbs such as dandelion leaves, burdock and gentian root taste bitter and jumpstart your digestion by stimulating your salivary glands to produce saliva and all your digestive system organs to gear up and deliver their A game. You can take them just before a meal - about 10-15 min before or after eating if you’ve eaten and feel like your meal is a brick in your stomach. If you can get past the bitter taste, the gentle yet effective use of these bitters can be quite beneficial.
  • Digestive enzymes - these provide actual digestive enzymes that your pancreas provides. Sometimes, supporting these enzymes can be quite helpful for your digestion. They also help to decrease the antigenicity or effect that certain foods may cause for you - when your digestion is compromised, oftentimes you may have food sensitivities, known or more likely unknown that provoke your immune system - the antigens that these foods create are because your immune system doesn't see them as friendly or welcome nutrients but rather as an enemy to be tagged and protected from . Because ‚ÖĒ of our immune system is housed in our gut, this can be very problematic and lead to many unfavorable dynamics such as autoimmune illness. Digestive enzymes can be comprehensive and include hydrochloric acid and ox bile for additional support.
  • Magnesium - magnesium is the master mineral and necessary for over 600 biochemical reactions in our bodies. One of these is bowel motility. We need optimal amounts of cellular magnesium to be able to sustain the wave-like peristalsis that is responsible for healthy motility and normal BMs. There are specific types of magnesium that are bowel stimulating such as magnesium citrate or oxide and therefore would be preferred if you are constipated. If you do not need bowel stimulation you can consider magnesium glycinate or malate or taurate. They will all promote muscle relaxation and support your body. Due to a whole host of issues from farming practices to stress, many of us are indeed magnesium deficient so considering supplementation is not a bad idea. Outside of overt kidney disease being a contraindication, there aren’t many reasons why magnesium supplementation shouldn’t be considered.

 

The health of your digestive system, in large part, dictates your health. Our choices matter most in whether your digestive system is functioning optimally and you are feeling great or not. You get to decide. To this day I am in awe of how much power we have. 

Is chronic bloating a regular part of your life? Well it doesn't have to be. 

Chronic bloating may be common, but it is NOT normal! 

Bloating itself isn't the problem, it's usually a sign that something deeper is going on. Watch this free one hour masterclass and learn the 4 main types of bloating, their causes and what you can do to become bloat free for good!

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