You may be wondering…how do you know if your digestion is running well?
In Part 1 of Digestion Demystified, I outlined the many ways your digestive system influences your overall health:
- A first-line protective layer from any harmful organisms in the food you eat
- A central player in your immune system (over ½ of your immune system is in your gut!)
- The key system for gleaning all the powerful nutrients from your food
- One of the top three doorways your body uses to get rid of toxins and waste
Today, I’d like to share three things you need to have in place to ensure your digestive system is healthy.
1. Hydrochloric acid (HCL)
This is the first key element of healthy digestion. As soon as you smell or think of food, your brain sends the message to your stomach to produce more acid. Stomach acid protects you from bacteria and other organisms by killing them off. Without it, that leftover turkey you ate just a day too late might also bring some unwanted friends into your system.
Stomach acid also converts iron and minerals, like calcium, into a form that is absorbable. Otherwise you may not get the benefits of calcium-rich foods or the supplements you’re taking, which increases your risk of osteoporosis. Have you ever seen the ad for acid-blocking drugs warning of the side effect of increased osteoporosis? This is why!
The third big role hydrochloric acid plays is helping break down proteins. If proteins aren’t broken down before entering your small intestine, the bigger pieces can bounce around on their way through, damaging the sensitive outer layers of your digestive tract. They also make a great meal for unwanted bacteria in the large intestine, which is a population you don’t necessarily want to feed.
Once food passes through your stomach, it makes its way into your small intestine. Here your pancreas jumps into action to continue breaking down your food. The pancreas’s ultimate goal is to break the meal you ate into micro-sized molecules small enough to pass through the gut barrier and travel through without damaging the tender lining of your gut. One of its main jobs is breaking down proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
If your pancreas isn’t making enough enzymes, once again you miss out on absorbing the benefits of what you ate. Or, if you only chewed that mouthful a couple of times, the pieces of food are going to be way too large for your enzymes to break down in one go. These larger, undigested pieces of food can damage your system.
3. Gut flora
There is so much in the media right now about probiotics. The word probiotic means “for life” in Latin, which shows just how critical they are for our health. Probiotics are “good” bacteria that play an important role in keeping our bodies balanced. Since we’re made up of more bacteria than we are human cells, you definitely want to make sure the good guys are occupying more of your home turf. In your digestive tract, the good bacteria help break food down and make up the outermost protective layer of your digestive tract (i.e. the inside lining of the tube).
Why are probiotics so hot right now? With the prevalence of antibiotic use, adding good bacteria to our system has become especially important. Antibiotics are incredible tools for saving lives and killing off deadly or harmful bacterial infections. Unfortunately, rather than being a sniper and just killing off the one bacterium that is making you sick, most antibiotics have a shotgun approach and kill ALL bacteria in their path. This is very effective, but also very harmful when you lose your protective bacteria. Probiotic capsules are filled with beneficial bacteria and taking them helps replace the healthy flora that was lost. Your levels of good bacteria are also affected by stress, poor diet, illness or infection, age and travel.
One of the most common questions I get is whether eating probiotic yogurt is enough. That depends. Once your digestion is healthy and balanced, a sugar-free, organic and unpasteurized yogurt is a great option for maintenance, as is unpasteurized sauerkraut. That being said, most of us have taken antibiotics, are under stress, travel and occassionally get sick, all of which can throw off the sensitive balance of bacteria in your digestive tract even once it is healthy and balanced.
Quick Tips To Get You Started:
As a sneak peak to my next newsletter, two habits you can start today to improve your digestion include:
1) Sitting down while you eat. This gives your body a chance to switch from “stress” mode, to “digestion” mode
2) Add 1-2 tsp of apple cider vinegar to a glass of water and drink it 10 minutes before your meal. The apple cider vinegar gently increases your level of stomach acid and kicks off your body’s digestive functions.
We’ve now covered the role of your digestion in your overall health and 3 key elements to achieving balance. In Digestion Demystified: Part 3, I’ll share specific, simple tips you can do daily to create:
- Healthy hydrochloric acid levels
- Sufficient enzyme levels
- Balanced gut flora