Now that we have a solid understanding of nutrients and where we get them, let’s dive into how we can make sure that we are absorbing and utilizing them! Digestion is a north to south process, meaning it starts at our northernmost body part: the brain, and continues south until we eventually drop the kids off at the pool. Sorry if you were eating while reading this ;). From the physiological signals your brain sends your body when you are anticipating eating a delicious meal, to the mechanical components like chewing, there are many simple things we can do to support and improve our digestion.
Being mindful around meal time is a great place to start. The reason behind sitting at a table without distractions like a cell phone or TV is that we need to allow the brain to send the body signals that food is coming! This signaling causes the body to create saliva in the mouth, which begins the breakdown carbohydrates, among other things. We also need to be in a parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) state in order to digest, if we are multitasking (like eating in the car while driving) our bodies’ number one priority is to keep us between the white and double yellow lines. In this situation, our body is in a sympathetic (“fight or flight”) mode and maldigestion will occur due to the lack of signaling to the brain and lack of saliva produced, resulting in fermented carbohydrates which create dysbiosis further down in the digestive tract.
Once we have chewed (or not) our foods, the food travels along to the stomach. The stomach is a highly acidic environment and needs to be that way in order to breakdown our beloved proteins into amino acids which we can utilize throughout our body. If we don’t have enough gastric juices, proteins begin to putrefy and organisms like bacteria, viruses and parasites which would normally be killed by the acid bath, begin to raise havoc in the digestive tract. An easy way to support the production of HCL (stomach acid) and other gastric juices is to sip on some lemon or apple cider vinegar about 10 minutes before we eat. This helps us kick-start the digestive system and lower stomach acid to the optimal range of pH 1.5-3.0.
Continuing along our digestive tract, the gallbladder is responsible for releasing bile to breakdown fats. If we do not consume enough good fats, or have a low enough pH in the stomach, the gallbladder does not get triggered to release bile, therefore making us unable to absorb fats. In this case reverting back to what we just learned about supporting the production of stomach acid to breakdown proteins, is also important for the production of bile, along with eating enough healthy fats to keep the gallbladder primed!
The last digestive organ we will talk about today is the small intestine (yes- to my biology and nutrition gurus, I am skipping over quite a few other organs that play key roles in digestion to focus on a few today). The small intestine is what I like to think of as the “meat and potatoes” of digestion. If we can properly breakdown our foods upon reaching the small intestine, we are likely in good shape! This is where we absorb nutrients into our bloodstream where they can then be delivered to the rest of our body. The key here is having our food broken down into its smaller components like glucose (from carbohydrates), amino acids and peptides (from proteins) and fatty acids (from fats). We can support optimal absorption and utilization by making sure the more northern parts of the digestive system are functioning properly.
Finally, we want to make sure we are eliminating the “leftovers” in a timely manner. Maldigested food in the colon can cause inflammation leading to things like Crohn’s disease, Colitis and Celiac disease. To support a healthy transit time we can start by supporting optimal digestion in the ways listed above. If we notice things like loose stools, constipation, and undigested food in our stools, it’s a good sign that the above process need some attention! A secondary factor in slow transit time could be a lack of fiber. If we recall from a few weeks ago fiber is abundant in healthy carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables.
If we are spending our time and resources in supplying our bodies with nutrient dense, real food, it’s in our best interest to be getting the most bang for our buck and absorbing all of the wonderful nutrients that real foods provide! While stopping our crazy busy lives for 20 minutes to properly eat a meal may seem daunting, such an easy adjustment can very well be the key to helping us reach our aesthetic and performance goals and keeping us out of the nursing home in years to come.