Talk Nutrition to Me
Gut health, it isn’t the most attractive subjects to discuss, even just the word “gut” can sound rather unappealing. However, you would be surprised to learn just how much your guts do for you, and why it is important to show them some love. From proper nutrition to supporting mental wellness, your digestive system does a lot. Let’s take a quick journey through the digestive process to better understand why digestion is one of the most important aspects of your health!
Love at First Bite
Digestion starts in the mouth. That’s right, every mouthwatering morsel that you put in your mouth has already begun to be digested even before you are finished chewing! Saliva actually helps our bodies to break down food. While also helping keep everything slippery and moving smoothly. It works by breaking down starches and transforming them into sugars, which your body can then use as fuel. Your food then works its way down the tube called the esophagus, entering the stomach. To keep you from choking the epiglottis blocks the trachea when swallowing.
Next stop, the stomach!
The stomach is amazing, in it are enzymes that further break food down for absorption:
Gastrin – it starts the chemical breakdown of food!
Pepsin – takes food proteins and transforms them into peptides.
The body is so smart though, as it produces pepsin as pepsinogen, which is inactive. Otherwise, it’d destroy the cells that make it! In fact, the cells in the stomach are replaced often, due to the damage that stomach acid causes. Oh, and if you’re wondering what has happened to the food you ate. It has now turned into a mushy acidic substance called chyme. It’s just easier to control this way. See the body only sends small amounts to small intestines, as it wants to thoroughly extract all nutrients from your food.
Small Intestines, Ahoy!
Now the chyme, aka your meal, must be push pushed passed the pyloric sphincter (dare you to say that five times fast) which are little rings of muscle at the base of the stomach. It will continue to the duodenum, which is the start of your intestinal tract.
The small intestines are long! In fact, they can be up to 22 feet in length! (CHP)
CHP, Organs: Small and Large Intestines, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
A lot goes on inside the small intestines. First off, it is important to understand that there are a lot of folds in the surface area of the tissue. This is an amazing design, as it gives the small intestines more surface area, because it is all nicely folded up! On top of this, the surface of the small intestines (as well as the large intestines) has all these little hair-like structures call “villi.”
Why are villi important?
Villi do more than just swaying in the chyme going by. Nope, they are hard at work absorbing the nutrients needed from the chyme. In fact, if you have something that inflames the villi, such as a gluten sensitivity which is characterized in Celiac disease, you’re going to end up with some severe deficiencies! Each villus is where intestinal cells live, working to absorb your nutrients. As the cell travels from the base of the villi up, it does its job and then dies off around the end of the villi.
Things that can affect nutritional absorption in the small intestines:
- Villi is damaged due to allergy or infection
- The speed of intestinal cells is increased/decreased. Causing the cell to absorb too slowly or die off too fast.
- Hostile invasion – bad bacteria and viruses.
What is absorbed in the small intestines?
Water – mostly what you’re made of
Monosaccharides – fuel for your bod
Amino acids – muscle builders
Fatty acids – good for brain health
Short peptides – basically the short version of amino acids
Vitamins & minerals – various goodness that keeps you alive
The Lovely Liver
The next digestive destination is your liver. The liver is one busy organ, it’s responsible for:
- Storing fats, carbohydrates, iron and some vitamins.
- Helps to regulate blood glucose levels.
- Synthesizes blood proteins.
- Converts ammonia into urea.
Basically, the liver is your body’s filter. It takes out all that bad stuff, such as toxins.
Also, it creates bile salts (such an appetizing term) that help prevent fat from getting all globbed together, in what are aptly called globules.
The Patient Pancreas
We’re approaching the end of the digestive process with the pancreas. Most know that the pancreas helps the body with blood glucose control by creating insulin. However, this isn’t all the pancreas does. In the pancreas, there is a liquid created called pancreatic juice. It helps to turn the acidic chyme, neutral, as anything acidic is hard on your body. The pancreas also helps to break down carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins. There are three important enzymes in the pancreas.
Amylase – It was around during the beginning of the journey of digestion, as well.
Amylase serves to breakdown carbohydrates.
Lipases – Its job is to break down lipids.
Proteases – It breaks down proteins.
The liver and pancreas connect to the small intestine. This is where digestion technically ends because the nutrients are absorbed and sent to the bloodstream. Also, all the left-over fats, proteins, and indigestible fibers are sent to the large intestines. There are some important bacteria living in the large intestines. They don’t get a free ride though. These little guys synthesize:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin K – This is not available in the food we eat.
Yes, there are supplements, but naturally, we only get it from these bacteria in our large intestines.
Aren’t bacteria supposed to be bad for us?!
It’s all about balance, baby! Without balance in our system, we are not healthy.
One of the best things you can do for your health is to better understand and help maintain your digestive system. Eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) or having inflammation in our digestive tract, can cause imbalance. The same goes for when we take medications, especially antibiotics which can wipe out all bacteria in our system. That means it kills off the bad bacteria causing you to get sick, but also all the good bacteria that helps keep your villi healthy or helps synthesize nutrients. This does not mean to stop taking medication.
It just means you need to be especially nice to your body during this time. Drink lots of water. Take a probiotic or consume things with good bacteria in it, such as organic yogurt, kefir, or kombucha. Decrease your consumption of things that make your body acidic, especially processed foods or foods with high amounts of sugar. Processed sugar not only is acidic, which is damaging to the body, it is also the best food for bad bacteria. Which will only increase the imbalance in your body.
The Gut-Brain Connection
It may sound silly to say that your gut health is important for your mental health, but it is true! After all, we’ve all experienced how our emotions can affect our body. From butterflies on the first date to that gut instinct when you feel something is wrong. It is undeniable that there is a connection, but you may be surprised to learn that anxiety and stress can actually increase inflammation in the gut or cause the speed of digestion to change. Anthony L. Komaroff of Harvard Health Letter discusses it in further depth here.
This journey through your digestive system wasn’t just to spark memories of the Magic School Bus, it is to give you a look at how compressive your health is. The body is an amazing machine with intricate operations that help it function at its best. It is our job to help it by being mindful of what we put into our body. I know, life is hectic and sometimes eating seems like such a waste of time, but it isn’t. It can also be easy. When eating, remember to eat SOUL foods:
- Unprocessed or Unrefined
If you know what you should eat, yet still struggle then I recommend keeping a food journal for a week. Don’t worry about being judged, as you are the only one who will see it. Write down moods and why you preferred or didn’t prefer, what you ate.
This will help you see if there are any trends and to figure out the reasons you like your favorite foods. As well as giving you details to help you try to healthier alternatives.
As well, I highly recommend these books:
“The Science of Skinny” by Dee McCaffrey
Not just for weight loss, there is a lot of great information about what is in the food we eat and it is a fun read!
“Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works.”
by Evelyn Tribole M.S. R.D. and Elyse Resch M.S. R.D. F.A.D.A.
Often I find that people are in a horrible cycle of self-shame when it comes to food. As a culture, America treats eating as an annoying chore and a reward system. This is very conflicting and it’s amazing we aren’t all having a hard time with food. But it is important to change the narrative with eating.
Look at other cultures that live longer, they all have a much different relationship with food that we have here in the United States. It is a time for community, family, and nourishment of the body AND soul. Taking steps that incorporate that in into your lifestyle will improve your relationship with food and your body.
Which will only help you meet your wellness goals!