Ways to Support Healthy Digestion
Healthy digestion requires support for all the different components of digestion:
Chew thoroughly. Chewing is the physical process of breaking the food down into smaller fragments. Thorough chewing mixes food well with saliva, which moistens the food particles and provides a means for enzymes, like amylase and lipase, to get to the pieces of food and begin the process of starch and fat digestion. Chewing also signals the body to begin the digestion process, alerting the stomach to prepare to make stomach acid, and signaling the pancreas to prepare to secrete its contents into the lumen of the small intestinal tract.
When a meal is not well chewed, the food fragments are too big. Since the digestive enzymes can only work on the surface of the food fragments, inadequate chewing results in incomplete digestion. This means not only nutrients being left in the food and unabsorbed, but also extra food for bacteria in the colon. This extra bacterial food results in bacterial overgrowth, gas and symptoms of indigestion.
Eating should always begin with thorough chewing of food to allow for complete digestion to occur.
Ensure adequate amounts of digestive factors. After chewing, the food's next stop is the stomach, where an adequate amount of stomach acid (hydrochloric acid) is the next necessity. Stomach acid is required for adequate breakdown of proteins. Without adequate stomach acid, not only is protein digestion ineffective, but also digestion of vitamin B12 is seriously affected. Vitamin B12 digestion and absorption requires that it be liberated from protein. In addition, intrinsic factor, the protein that is necessary for vitamin B12 absorption, is low when stomach acid is low.
Low stomach acid (hypochlorhydria) is common, especially in older people since as we age, we make less stomach acid. Research suggests that as many as half of the people over 60 years old have hypochlorhydria. A variety of factors can inhibit sufficient stomach acid production including the pathogenic bacteria, Helicobacter pylori, and frequent use of antacids. Hypochlorhydria is also associated with many diseases, such as asthma, celiac sprue, hepatitis, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, and diabetes mellitus. Signs of hypochlorhydria include a sense of fullness after eating, bloating, excessive belching, indigestion, multiple food allergies, undigested food in the stool, and peeling and cracked fingernails.
In addition to hydrochloric acid, the production of pancreatic enzymes and bicarbonate is also compromised in some people. If necessary, these digestive factors can be replaced with appropriate supplementation. Digestive enzyme support can also be obtained from fresh pineapple or papaya, which contain the enzyme bromelain, and other fresh vegetables and herbs. Processed foods, like canned pineapple, contain little enzyme activity since digestive enzymes are proteins, which are destroyed by heating, such as in the sterilization process. So beginning a meal with fresh fruits or salad can provide support for healthy digestion.
Identify and eliminate food allergens. The intestinal brush border (the absorptive surface of the small intestine) can be negatively affected by food allergies, which cause inflammation along the intestinal tract wall. When a food allergic reaction occurs, the immune system perceives specific food molecules as hostile invaders, and forms antibodies, which latch on to these allergens to assist in their removal. As part of the immune system's defensive action against food allergens, inflammation can occur along the intestinal tract lining, interrupting the absorption process and causing damage to the lining. Gastrointestinal inflammatory diseasesâ€”such as diverticulosis or inflammatory bowel diseaseâ€”and celiac sprue (intolerance of gluten found in wheat products) also result in damage to the intestinal wall. Most common food allergens include milk proteins, wheat, soy, some shellfish, and peanuts.
Support the gastrointestinal barrier. The gastrointestinal cell wall is the barrier between what you ingest and the inside of your body; therefore, the integrity of this barrier is vital to your health. Support for the mucus that covers the cells in the gastrointestinal tract is very important, especially in the stomach. The mucus layer is one way the stomach and upper small intestine protect themselves against the damaging effects of stomach acid. Alcohol, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, called NSAIDS (e.g. aspirin), and the pathogenic bacteria, Helicobacter pylori can reduce the mucous layer, leading to lesions in the stomach and small intestinal tract walls.
Choline provides nutritional support for a healthy mucous layer and is found in vegetables such as cauliflower and lettuce. Choline can be obtained from lecithin (phosphatidylcholine) as well, which is high in eggs and soybeans. Some foods also help combat or protect against the damage of Helicobacter pylori, and these include catechins found in green tea, some spices such as cinnamon, carotenoids found in vegetables, and vitamin C, found in citrus foods.
Provide a healing environment for the small intestine. Research studies have shown that the small intestinal tract barrier can become leaky under some conditions. That is, the cells loose their attachments to each other, resulting in a wall with holes between the cells instead of the cells forming a strong, connected and continuous surface. When this "leaky gut" happens, molecules can get inside the body that normally wouldn't be transported through the intestinal cell wall. Furthermore, studies have shown that this leaky gut can also cause problems in the normal transport of nutrients. This is probably because most nutrients are taken into the body through the cells in the intestinal wall by the selective process of active transport, and they may need to go through the cells and not around them to get to the right transport systems in your body. Therefore, with leaky gut, the things that shouldn't get in do, and those that should can't get where they need to be for adequate transport through the body. The result is the body doesn't get the nutrition it needs.
Anything that irritates the lining of the gastrointestinal tract can cause leaky gut, but a major contributor is inflammation (e.g., food allergies). Leaky gut occurs under stress (see below), and is found after radiation treatments for cancer, after some chemotherapy, with diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, and with bacterial infections, which can result in bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine.
Eliminating foods to which you are intolerant or allergic can help provide a healing environment in the small intestine. Carotenoids, (a precursor to vitamin A), may be particularly important since vitamin A supports the maturation of epithelial cells, which are the type of cell that line the intestinal tract, and it is the mature epithelial cells that form the strongest barrier in the intestinal tract. Carotenoids are found at high levels in vegetables, especially the orange- and red-colored vegetables.
Glutathione, a small peptide found in the highest concentrations in fresh vegetables, fruits, and lean meats is also beneficial to the small intestine, since it can directly act as an antioxidant in the intestinal tract and help decrease damaging molecules that may be produced during inflammation. Vitamin C, from citrus fruits, and vitamin E, found in whole grain cereals and nut oils, are important antioxidants for the small intestine and work with glutathione to support intestinal healing.
The cells that line the intestinal tract need fuel to continue their process of nutrient uptake. The preferred fuel for these cells is the amino acid glutamine, which can be obtained from proteins. Some studies have shown that short-chain fatty acids may also support the small intestinal tract barrier because they can serve as an alternate fuel for the cells that make up the intestinal lining. The small intestinal tract cells also require energy to maintain integrity of the cell wall, and production of energy requires healthy levels of vitamin B5. Mushrooms, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, corn, broccoli, and beet greens are concentrated sources of pantothenic acid. The intestinal tract cells also require a number of vitamins, so adequate overall nutrition is necessary.
Support the growth of probiotic bacteria. When a good balance of probiotic bacteria have colonized the colon, they crowd out pathogenic bacteria and other microorganisms that compromise your health, preventing them from growing. By fermenting the fiber your body couldn't directly digest, these healthy colonic bacteria also produce short-chain fatty acids that the cells of the colon use for their own nourishment. In addition, these short-chain fatty acids are absorbed into the body and have beneficial effects on the small intestine and the system in general. For example, they may help maintain healthy blood sugar and lipid (fat) levels, and may also increase the amount of calcium taken in by the small intestine, and promote the movement of food through the intestinal tract. Foods that will supply probiotic bacteria include some yogurts, kefir, and other foods that have been fermented with Lactobacillus or contain Bifidobacteria, the beneficial types of bacteria. Foods that will nourish probiotic bacteria include foods that contain soy fiber, inulin (from chicory or Jerusalem artichoke), and rice fiber.
Provide for healthy intestinal transit. The movement of the food, or chyme, through the digestive tract is very important. Healthy intestinal transit is supported, in part, by the short-chain fatty acids produced by fermentation of prebiotic fibers in the colon. Fiber, in general, supports overall transit of the chyme and healthy elimination. Some fibers, like those found in rye, wheat and flax, also can bind to environmental toxins, such as pesticides, and carry them through the digestive tract for direct elimination, decreasing the amount that is absorbed into your body.
Learn how to deal with stress effectively. Research has shown that the intestine responds negatively to stress, during which the intestinal lining becomes leaky, absorption is less effective, and your body is unable to selectively take up the nutrients it needs. The reasons for these effects of stress on the intestinal tract are not entirely known, however many neurotransmitters (brain-produced signaling molecules) are found surrounding the intestinal tract. Furthermore, neurotransmitter receptors, which can bind and respond to these signaling molecules, are located along the intestinal tract. Therefore, it is known that brain signaling molecules can affect the intestinal tract. Foods with a calming effect include herb teas, like chamomile. Alcohol, caffeine, and refined carbohydrates, like table sugar, should be avoided. Eating meals at regular times and in a relaxed environment can also help decrease stress.