Digestion is such an important part of our health and sometimes we just need a good digestion 101. Today I’m sharing an overview of the basics plus 5 keys to better digestion from top to bottom.
I think we all know by now how important good digestion is. It’s one of the greatest pathways to the inside of our body, and consequently, a pretty big deal. Our digestive tract is where we absorb nutrients and begin distributing them around our body, and it’s also the home of trillions of immune-supporting bacteria. It’s a pretty cool place, in my opinion.
Gut health is a passion of mine and I receive a number of questions on the topic fairly regularly. What are my best tips for healthy digestion? How do we heal [insert blank]? Is this food healthy? Is that food unhealthy? I thought I’d address some of this today by going over the basics of the digestive process and 5 keys to improving digestion overall.
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1. The Cephalic Phase
Contrary to popular assumption, digestion technically doesn’t start in the mouth. It all begins with what’s known as the cephalic phase which is where saliva and gastric juices start being secreted before we even put food in our mouth. It’s what happens when we think, smell, see or taste food and it’s an integral part of digestion. Why? Because it gears us up for breaking down food optimally.
Unfortunately this phase is often missed out on. It happens to the best of us, so don’t fret, but we bypass this awesome opportunity to secrete gastric juices when we eat too quickly, order take out, pop frozen meals in the microwave, or just otherwise not fully experience the process of preparing and anticipating food. The cephalic phase is responsible for 20-50% of gastric and digestive hormone secretion. That’s how darn important it is!
This is one of my favourite reasons for making homemade meals. We not only get to choose the fresh ingredients we’re going to prepare, but we get to chop, stir, whisk, sauté, see, hear and smell all of it in the process!
Alright, so now we’ve taken a few bites after a most glorious cephalic phase experience. 😉 Our mouth and teeth are primarily responsible for mechanical digestion, that is, chewing! There are small amounts of salivary enzymes present in our mouth such as amylase (a carbohydate-digesting enzyme) and lipase (fat-digesting enzyme). But the most important step here is ensuring that we thoroughly chew our food.
This is another step that is frequently overlooked. Eating too much or too quickly is the biggest culprit here which creates two problems:
- Those salivary enzymes can’t access all parts of the food in our mouth
- We allow larger chunks of food to enter our stomach and GI tract which can lead to bloating, gas, and even exacerbate food sensitivities
Chewing your food thoroughly means slowing down and chewing until food is a paste. There’s a saying that you should chew your liquids and drink your food, which just means a smoothie for example should still have time to swirl around your mouth, and food should be fluid.
3. Stomach Acid, Enzymes, Bile, Oh my!
Once food enters and expands our stomach, hydrochloric acid (stomach acid) is secreted from cells in the lining. This amps up digestion by increasing acidity which is essential for not only activating protein-digesting enzymes (called pepsin) properly, but also for sterilizing pathogens and bacteria. Sufficient stomach acid is our first line of defence for our immune system!
Food then enters our duodenum (the first part of our small intestine) at a rate of about 2 teaspoons per minute. Our pancreas secretes bicarbonate to cool down the high acidity of the incoming food and pancreatic enzymes to start breaking things down further. These enzymes include protease (protein-digesting enzyme), and the two found in our saliva called amylase and lipase. In the presence of fatty food our gallbladder is stimulated to secrete bile, a substance that breaks down fat.
The third key in improving digestion is ensuring adequate stomach acid and enzyme activity. Many people need a boost and there are many supplements and herbs that can help.
Do You Have Low Stomach Acid?
There are a number of signs that we may need more stomach acid. These include:
- feeling “full” for a long time after meals
- excessive burping
- frequent bloating or gas
It’s quite common for those with heartburn to take antacids, and while they can be very useful for true high stomach acid levels, most of the time the acidity one feels is due to low stomach acid. If you’re feeling totally perplexed by this, here’s a quick explanation:
When we don’t have sufficient stomach acid food essentially sits in our stomach. We may feel an elongated sense of fullness and we’ll likely feel heightened acidity because the food we’ve eaten begins to ferment. This leads to excessive burping and an acidic sensation from gasses forming and rising.
Antacids are often used in these cases when for some, it’s the opposite that’s needed! A boost of stomach acid can often prevent this whole cascade. Certain antacids like proton-pump inhibitors work by inhibiting the release of stomach acid by stomach cells called parietal cells. But in doing so, they also inhibit the release of another substance by those same cells called intrinsic factor. Intrinsic factor is necessary for vitamin B12 absorption.
*If you take antacids it is extremely important that you work with your healthcare provider to come up with an action plan if coming off of them is your goal. Do not simply stop taking them just from reading this blog post as each individual has unique needs!
While a variety of supplements are available for digestive support (some that I personally have loved using for my own gut health), an option that I also love are digestive bitters. Bitters are groups of herbs that have very bitter qualities. As a result, their taste makes us salivate and they can help to naturally stimulate gastric juices and bile flow. One of my favourite products is St. Francis Canadian Bitters.
Once our food has been broken down into their basic building blocks (amino acids, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids), they can be absorbed into our blood stream! Our intestines are lined with fingerlike projections called villi which are then lined further with even tinier fingerlike projections called microvilli. And through those cells is where we absorb our nutrients! In healthy people, our villi are normal guys doing normal things. But in some people, the villi are damaged (such as found in inflammatory bowel diseases) or the cells aren’t joined as tightly as they should be (this is called leaky gut). More on that in a future blog post.
4. The Colon & The World of Bacteria
The remaining broken-down and mostly-absorbed foodstuff now enters our colon (large intestine) which is primarily responsible for re-absorbing water from the stool into our body which will help form proper, solid stools. The colon is also the home to trillions and trillions of bacteria. Some good, some “bad”, but in a balanced microbiome, they’re useful all the same.
The bacteria in our colon aren’t just boring, uninteresting, or seemingly gross little creatures. They’re actually fascinatingly complex dudes with a multitude of functions. An estimated 80% of our immune system is found in our gut. These bacteria play major roles in educating and communicating with our immune system. They also have the ability to manufacture certain vitamins and even affect our mood. This is called the gut-brain axis!
This is why ensuring happy, healthy gut flora is so important. Because without them, we simply can’t experience optimal gut health or health overall. Here are some of my favourite ways to support our gut flora:
- avoiding antibiotics as much as possible
- avoiding too much alcohol
- reducing sugar and refined carbohydrate consumption
- managing stress
- taking a probiotic supplement
- eating fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt (I like dairy-free cultured coconut), or kombucha
5. The Final Stage: Poop!
The end stage of the digestive process is of course, pooping. Exciting, I know. But my tips don’t end there! One last thing I’d like to mention is the importance of a squatting position while having a bowel movement. Modern day toilets force us to sit upright, whereas our intestines actually prefer and function better in a folded, squatting position. Doing so helps contents move out of us easier and relieve pressure or strain on parts of our intestines.
An easy way to encourage this position is to simply use a small stool at the base of your toilet. Ever heard of “The Squatty Potty“? Yeah. It’s brilliant.
I hope you’ve found this post useful. Leave me any comments or questions in the section below! I’d be happy to answer them or save some for future videos and blog posts on the topic of gut health.
P.S. Interested in learning more about digestion and all the tools and habits for living a gut-friendly lifestyle? Learn more about my 4-week Digestive Reset Program.