Few people are kind to their digestive system, often abusing them and then ignoring or covering up the signs of discomfort, stress or pain by taking medication.
Digestion begins in the mouth – enzymes in your saliva mix with our food and begin to work on it, particularly on carbohydrates. Chewing increases the surface area of our food making it easier for our enzymes to do their job further down the digestive tract. Chewing also alerts the digestive system further down the line, getting the pancreas and gall bladder ready. So if you chew your food well it gives your whole digestive system a better chance.
Here I should mention about chewing gum – chewing gum alerts your digestive system and certain things are set into motion, but the digestive system is fooled, no food! I have come across many people who constantly chew gum and have digestive problems. Once they give up chewing gum, more often than not their digestive problems disappear.
Many people confess to gulping down their food, hardly stopping to chew or taste their food. Often paying little attention to what they eat or how much they eat. It is a difficult habit to break and will need a conscious effort.
The health of your mouth and teeth is so very important at any age, as it is vital to be able to chew our food properly. As we get older it is even more important that we look after our teeth and gums. Find a dentist you like and trust. going to the dentist for regular visits is very important; I would say that you need to do this at least every 6 months. A good dentist can even alert you to any health problems just from the state of your gums.
Many people have over the years got into the habit of not chewing well, for many different reasons. You are not going to chew your food properly if you have painful or sensitive teeth, sore gums or indeed if you have broken or missing teeth. You could be making poor food choices, purely due to the state of your teeth.
Grinding your teeth at night, many people grind their teeth and have no idea. The dentist can detect the tell tale signs of wear and tear. This grinding can cause people to have jaw aches, headaches, neck aches or many times just have sore teeth and gums making them sensitive to everything you eat or drink. Having a mouth guard can eliminate this problem for some people. Get a mouth guard made especially to fit your teeth and mouth it’s much more comfortable if you do, so when you grind your teeth there is a cushioning to reduce the impact and pressure. Calm your anxieties with herbal teas and try to avoid caffeine as it can heighten your anxieties.
However, for most people the problem isn’t their teeth – it’s too being busy, or distractions, eating on the run etc. These are some of the things you need to consider. Do not eat –
a) while standing
b) while reading
c) if you are angry
d) while watching television
e) while on the phone
f) while driving
Concentrate on what you are eating, chew well and savor your food. In truth few people pay much attention to how much they have eaten or to what they have eaten, as they are too busy doing something else while they eat. The small amount of extra time needed is well worth the investment, it will make a big difference to your digestion and ultimately your health.
Drinking lots of water with meals is not a good idea as you dilute your digestive juices, but drinking water 20 to 30 minutes before a meal is really good for the digestion.
Saliva also helps to neutralize acidity in the mouth (protecting teeth) from acid in foods and drinks that most people consume most of the time. Then saliva also prevents infections by controlling bacteria and fungi in the mouth. A dry mouth can be very uncomfortable, disturbing sleep, causing a sore throat all having a direct or indirect effect on your digestion. There are several causes of dry mouth could be due to a certain diseases, however, the most common cause is the side-effect of medication in particular anti-histamines and diuretics (in simple terms these drugs dry up the body). Other causes are dehydration, from chronic (more than short lived) vomiting, chronic sweating, chronic diarrhea and fever. If you have a dry mouth you need to consider making some life-style changes.
Herbs – Sage or Thyme, the herbs found in your or dried from supermarkets can be made into a natural mouth wash. Take 1 tablespoon of sage or thyme per mug of boiled water – allow it to stand for 10 minutes then strain, do not swallow. This strong infusion can be used for bleeding gums, infections, and mouth sores. Once the infusion is made keep in the refrigerator for a couple of days only. The fresh leaves of sage can be rubbed into the gums for gingivitis.
Vitamins – take 1000mg of vitamin C each day, to prevent infection and bleeding gums, maintaining healthy blood vessels.
Foods – sugary foods and drinks as we all know are detrimental to your teeth and general health. Foods that strengthen your teeth and bones, and at the same time maintain a good acid-alkaline balance – any dark green plants/herbs/vegetables.
Buckwheat is a seed that is used like a grain. It contains a compound called rutin. Rutin is an antioxidant, vitamin-like substance that protects against capillary fragility and bruising (typical of many people with high blood pressure), as well as bleeding gums. Buckwheat flour can be used to make great pancakes. ‘Crepes’ made in Brittany where traditionally made from buckwheat. This flour is gluten-free.
Avoid drinking black tea with food as it will hinder the absorption of minerals like calcium, iron etc due to its high tannin levels.
Taste and smell are extremely important to digestion as they alert the organs to excrete digestive enzymes and hormones. People who are short of zinc do not taste and smell their food particularly well, and should consider taking Zinc with a B complex. A common reaction to lowered sense taste and smell, is an increased use of salt and sugar.
Once we swallow our food it ends up in our stomach, where the lining of the stomach secretes hormones, enzymes and hydrochloric acid. Have you ever wondered why the stomach doesn’t digest itself? This is due to the fact that it has a very thick layer of protective mucus. In the stomach Pepsin – breaks down proteins. The stomach lining produces several types of pepsinogens, which lay dormant until they are mixed with hydrochloric acid. If you do not have enough hydrochloric acid, the pepsinogens cannot be activated into pepsin, making protein digestion very much more difficult. Hydrochloric acid is produced by the parietal cells in the stomach lining. Besides helping to break down proteins, it’s vital in the break down and ultimately absorption of minerals, especially calcium and iron. Having enough hydrochloric acid is important to our general health, as it kills bacteria, fungus etc. Generally, our hydrochloric acid levels drop as we get older. Gastric lipase splits down fats. Amylase continues to break down carbohydrates. Instrinsic factor, without it we could not absorb vitamin B12, causing pernicious anemia. Pernicious anemia is not the same as the anemia that is caused by iron shortages. Food will stay in your stomach anything from 1 to 5 hours, depending on what you have eaten.
Some people get heart burn, what does this mean? This means they suffer a lot of pain and reach for antacids that may or may not work, have side-effects and only treat the symptoms? Heart burn can have several causes – a weak lower esophageal sphincter (LES for short), the muscle (valve) that rings the base of the esophagus and the top of the stomach. Swallowing opens the valve allowing food to enter the stomach and is supposed to prevent the stomach acid seeping back up into the esophagus, called “reflux”, causing burning and pain in the esophagus. Some antacids reduce the stomach’s acidity so it burns less. Others reduce the stomach acid secretion so there is less in the stomach. Both of these do nothing to encourage the valve to function better, and certainly hinder digestion and absorption.
There is a huge problem with this sort of treatment, as we need normal amounts of stomach acid to digest our food properly, lowering it sets up all sorts of health problems in the long run. There are foods and drinks that contain compounds that encourage the body to increase the production of a hormone that relaxes the LES valve. These include chocolate, tea, coffee, alcohol, and greasy foods (from processed fats). Being overweight increases physical pressure on the stomach, and can force acid up into the esophagus. This is why heartburn is so common amongst pregnant women.
Some people are in pain and take regular pain-killers, needing antacids to counteract their side-effects, but they too have side-effects! Get help changing some aspects of your life and diet, you will suffer less pain, take less medication, your body will naturally have less inflammation and will start absorbing more nutrients, which has a positive knock-on effect.
The stomach’s contents empties into the duodenum where its acidity needs neutralizing immediately. The pancreas produces about 2.5 liters of pancreatic juices/enzymes a day. The first thing that must happen is the production of a substance rich in sodium carbonate, neutralizing stomach acid, as the lining of the duodenum cannot cope with such high acidic levels. If this doesn’t happen you will be prone to duodenal ulcers.
The pancreas releases digestive enzymes – amylase, lipase and three proteases, digestive enzymes that further break down carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
There is a direct relationship between our enzyme reserve and the health of our immune system. The better our enzyme reserve, the better our immune system can cope with everyday battles, of which there are many, including your eating habits.
White blood cells are responsible for seeking out and destroying foreign invaders that manage to infiltrate our blood and lymph. Studies have shown that these white blood cells have proteolytic, amylytic and lipolytic enzymes similar to that produced by the pancreas for digestion. These enzymes break down larger molecules of proteins, fats and carbohydrates that have managed to get into the blood stream. These substances are dealt with before they cause too much havoc or destruction in our system. Interestingly, studies show depending on what you eat, directly affects your white blood cell activity.
Eating dead processed foods causes your immune system to use up large amounts of its vital enzyme reserves. Eating live natural foods doesn’t use up such reserves, and even adds to this the reserve. As your enzymes become depleted over the years and as you continue to eat dead food your digestive system struggles more and more (even if you are not aware of it). The gradual depletion of enzymes means most of our food is not being digested properly. This situation along with eating nutrient poor foods can lead to all sorts of chronic problems. Dead food is not just void of enzymes but more often than not also co-enzymes (vitamins, and minerals) that enable the body to manufacture more enzymes.
Studies have shown low levels of enzymes in diabetics. The pancreas has another function besides producing digestive enzymes, it also produces insulin. People suffering from liver problems have also been found to have low levels of digestive enzyme activity.
All food must be broken down into simpler molecules by enzymes. The more enzymes we get from your food the less your system has to manufacture, borrow or steal from other activities within your body, like the immune system. The enzymes provided by the food we eat, aid in their own digestion, leaving the body’s own reserves in tact to get on with other metabolic jobs that are so vital to your health.
Enzymes are the key to life, needed for every reaction in our bodies, otherwise we are like a machines without batteries. Vitamins and minerals are also known as co-enzymes, the building blocks to enzymes, sure our bodies can make enzymes providing we are absorbing enough co-enzymes (all the vitamins and minerals needed), this is not always the case.
After a cooked meal our white blood cell count goes up considerably, they would appear to aid in the process by providing much needed enzymes. However, when we eat raw foods there is no such substantial increase in our white blood count. Raw foods bring with them plenty of their own enzymes and co-enzymes, reducing our immune system’s involvement.
The gall bladder releases its stored bile salts, which break down fat into smaller parts allowing lipase to do its job more efficiently. Bile is a greenish yellow colored fluid that contains cholesterol, fatty acids, lecithin, bilirubin, and bile salts, produced by the liver. It’s the bile salts that are important to digestion as they help to emulsify fats, by lowering the surface tension it allows large particles to be broken down into tiny ones. Bile salts also help with the absorption of fatty acids from the intestinal tract. Bile gets its color from the pigment called bilirubin, which come from spent and worn out red blood cells that are removed from the blood stream for disposal.
A good working liver and gall bladder are very important to the digestion and absorption of fat. I hear some of you say, I don’t want to absorb fat. Oh, yes you do. Some fats are essential to our health and weight maintenance, so much so they are called ‘essential’ fatty acids. The liver and the production of bile is a very important part of controlling your cholesterol levels. Spent hormones and cholesterol are broken down by the liver and released into the gall bladder, from there cholesterol ends up in the large intestines.
Put simply, if your diet has enough natural fiber (from whole foods) and enough nutrients it will bind with the cholesterol and will be removed from the body via the bowels, thus maintaining good cholesterol levels. However, a diet void of enough fiber and nutrients, will allow cholesterol to be reabsorbed back into the blood stream, for the liver to deal with again.
In the jejunum and ileum is where most of our absorption takes place. Enzymes play a vital role in the process of absorption from the small intestine into the blood stream. To encourage maximum absorption the lining has microscopic finger-like protrusions, called villi. These villi give our intestines an enormous surface area to ensure maximum absorption of nutrients.
How to ensure your body has enough enzymes? At first you could take digestive enzymes in the form of capsules/tablets, these are only a temporary solution while you change your diet and your digestion improves. Take more live foods that are full of enzymes – fresh fruit, vegetables, natural plain yogurt etc. However these should be eaten raw or lightly steamed. Too much cooking easily destroys enzymes.
By the time the food has reached the large intestine (bowel or colon), a lot of what was worth absorbing will have already been absorbed by the time it reaches here. Though the entire digestive tract contains bacteria, here in the large intestine is where the majority of bacteria exist, the good, the bad and the terrible. These guys produce enzymes that continue to work on the remains of digestion. At this point water is re-absorbed and the longer the waste remains in the large intestine the more water is removed, and reabsorbed into the blood stream. This is called auto-intoxication. The more constipated a person is the drier their stools become.
Somehow, many people think that they can eat what they like and the digestive system just sorts it all out. I often hear people say – a little of this or a little of that, and a little of the other, will do no harm, not really stopping to think of all the accumulative effect it all has. Bit by bit, week by week, year by year!
The large intestines should contain a large abundance of the correct bacteria ‘the friendly bowel flora’, in order for these good guys to survive and flourish, they need the correct nourishment. These beneficial bacteria, contribute to our immune defense system, and help to produce some nutrients.
Modern eating habits and certain medications contribute, encourage and feed the unfriendly flora. Antibiotics are an example – disrupting the balance. Antibiotics should be taken as a last resort, they do undoubtedly save lives, but too many people are taking them for minor reasons. This approach really isn’t a good idea especially if you are not in a high risk category – being elderly, very young or have asthma etc. Just because I am a Naturopath doesn’t mean I am against pharmaceutical medication, however they are not a good idea for simple conditions or first resort (if the condition is not life threatening). Worldwide scientific news has been reporting for many years that antibiotics are being overused and misused, which is causing ‘drug resistant bugs’ and health problems.
Yeast or fungal infections are more prevalent as the bowel flora becomes out of whack. Symptoms are varied – including headaches, aches and pains, skin problems, respiratory problems and mucus problems, tiredness, more susceptible to infections and so on.
As a practitioner of natural medicine it is impossible not to think of the body as a complete entity, everything you do has a knock on affect on every single cell in the body.
Feed the bad guys – eat plenty of white rice, plenty of white flour products like white bread, when throw in some sugar for good measure, from so many foods like cakes, cookies and sodas. Plenty of products contain something worse, ‘High Fructose Corn Syrup’. This is not to be confused with the fructose that comes packaged in whole fresh fruit, is not the same thing at all, far from it.
Feed the good guys eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (remember 5 a day is a minimum recommendation), plus garlic, beans, lentils, brown rice, quinoa, millet, plain yogurt, ground flax seeds also know as linseeds or psyllium can be found in the supermarkets, add a teaspoon or two to a glass of water.
It is important that your bowel are functioning well, constipation is not good for your overall health. To prevent auto-intoxication, to balance cholesterol levels and hormones you need to consume enough natural fiber from whole foods, which will bind with cholesterol to successfully remove it from the body before it is reabsorbed back into the system. Hence why the adverts on lowering cholesterol extol the virtues of the soluble fiber found in oats. However, fiber from all sorts of natural whole foods will enhance your health, ensure a good working digestive system, feed the correct bowel flora, balance/lower cholesterol and so much more.
Be kind to your digestive system its your foundation to health.