So we’ve already talked about what proper digestion looks like. But with so many steps, and such a complex and interconnected process taking place, it means there are a lot of opportunities where something can go wrong. As I’ve said before, you can be eating the most nutritious diet, but if your digestion isn’t on point, those nutrients could be going to waste! Let’s take a look at some of the ways proper digestion can be compromised.
Eating in the stress state
Digestion happens when our autonomic nervous system is in a parasympathetic state. This is the “rest and digest” mode when our system is calm, it can rest, repair, and of course, digest our food. In contrast, the sympathetic state, or “fight or flight” mode, is our stress state. Maybe you can already see where I’m going with this? If we are eating while feeling stressed our body won’t be in the right state to properly digest our food. Eating quickly, eating on the go, eating while multitasking (like at your desk, while working), can all disrupt your system from digesting properly.
What can you do?
Stop what you are doing, sit down, take a couple breaths, and eat in a relaxed environment – your body will thank you!
Not chewing your food sufficiently
Chewing is the key first step once the food enters our body, breaking it down and mixing it with saliva which starts the digestion process. If you aren’t taking the time to properly chew your food you are putting a lot of extra pressure on the rest of your digestive system to pick up the slack; the enzymes in your pancreas might not be able to complete the breakdown in the small intestine.
What can you do?
Take the time to properly chew your foods – think upwards of 30 chews per mouthful! Drink your solids and chew your liquids.
Having insufficient stomach acid
Some people might scoff at this one, considering how we all probably know someone who is often popping antacids. But did you know that a common cause of acid reflux is insufficient stomach acid? Let me explain… it’s not just about the quantity of acid in your stomach, but the level of acidity. Stress, excessive alcohol consumption, nutrient deficiencies, allergies, and excessive carbohydrate consumption can all suppress your acid production. The stomach is churning and churning the chyme (what your food is called once it reaches your stomach for digestion) to try and acidify it and break it down – remember it aims to only releases the food into the small intestine once it reaches a sufficient acidity level. So if your food is hanging out in the stomach too long, in a nice warm environment, the carbs can start to ferment, the proteins can putrefy, and the fats can go rancid. This can cause gas build up and pressure on the sphincter between the stomach and the esophagus – a recipe for acid reflux disaster!
The stomach also releases enzymes when food is present to aid in the chemical breakdown, but some of these, like the enzyme pepsin which breaks down protein, is only secreted when the acid level of the stomach is sufficiently low. Without pepsin, your protein won’t be broken down sufficiently, leaving the particles too big but also not making the nutrients available to your body for absorption. There are several vitamins and minerals that are absorbed in the stomach, but if the food isn’t properly broken down these won’t be made available.
Eventually, even if your chyme is not acidic enough, the stomach needs to make room for more food to be digested, so improperly broken down contents get passed into the small intestine. Now even though the chyme was not acidic enough by the stomach’s standards, it is still extremely acidic for your small intestine. With normal function the acidity of the food triggers the small intestine to secrete a protective mucous and the pancreas to release sodium bicarbonate which neutralizes the acidity. But if the chyme isn’t acidic enough, this trigger might not happen properly. The acid can burn the lining of the small intestine causing ulcers. Without the neutralizing process happening properly, the further breakdown or your food by pancreatic enzymes may also not take place.
Not consuming enough or improper fats
Healthy fats are a key component for the liver to produce quality bile and quality bile is needed to digest fats. It’s just one of many catch-22s within our body! If we don’t consume enough healthy fats, or over consume the unhealthy ones, our bile can become old and viscous, accumulating in the gallbladder and potentially causing gallstones. If this happens, when the gallbladder does try and release bile insufficient amounts will be released meaning the fats cannot be properly broken down and absorbed.
The gut lining can become leaky
With all of these issues potentially happening upstream, the result can be poorly digested food reaching the small intestine to be absorbed into our bloodstream. These food particles wreak havoc in your gut causing the gut lining to lose it selective permeability (aka. it’s ability to only allow certain things through to the bloodstream). The gut can become leaky and the undigested food gets through into the bloodstream. This can trigger an immune response as your body will recognize these particles as foreign invaders.
Our gut bacteria can get thrown off balance
The large intestine has to deal with everything that is leftover from the digestion process. Of course, if everything is running smoothly, this isn’t a big deal. But if the earlier steps weren’t running optimally, it can mean poorly digested food coming in that could be full of parasites, microorganisms, and undigested fats that can throw off the balance of bacteria in your gut and weaken the cells of your colon. This could eventually lead to conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, colitis, and celiac disease, just to name a few.
These are just some ways improper digestion can directly impact the organs of the digestive system. Poor digestion could be behind a whole host of other issues that you might not even think are related!
What can you do?
Don’t despair if you see some of yourself in the above descriptions. Nowadays digestive issues are all too common, but the great thing is that digestion is fundamental to our health, so if we can get it back on track the benefits can be truly profound. If you want to improve your digestion, the best thing to do is to discuss it with your doctor and work directly with a qualified professional like a Nutritional Therapy Consultant or Practitioner.