Digestion: What’s going on inside your body?
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
This article was originally published in The Art of Healing Magazine December 2005 and updated
How many times did your mother tell you to “chew your food”?
Well it appears that our mothers intuitively knew what was best for us (either that or they had studied physiology and they didn’t tell us).
Perhaps by gaining more of an insight into the digestive process, you may start heeding your mum’s advice. So let’s take a technical journey through your digestive system…
Many people do not know the importance of proper chewing and the subsequent digestive processes that follow. We are bit like a “chew-chew” train of tubes, with all processes connected together and influenced by the action of the previous process.
To explain. We often eat meals in a bit of a hurry, without much chewing, particularly when we’re under stress, in a negative emotion, distracted by a conversation, or engrossed in mental stuff…our thoughts. Yet we give no thought to what becomes of our food once it has been swallowed.
But if we do happen to think about it, normally we assume that anything put in our mouth automatically gets digested flawlessly and is effectively absorbed into the body where it nourishes our cells, with the waste products eliminated completely by the large intestine. This certainly represents the optimum conditions, but for most people there is many a slip between the table and the toilet.
Digestion in fact starts with smell. Have you ever noticed how we salivate when food smells good? This is the first important stage. Appreciation of what we are about to eat is vital. As food enters our mouth and we begin to chew, our food gets mixed with saliva. Our salivary glands secrete ptyalin and amylase.
These starch digesting enzymes are only produced in the mouth. If we don’t chew starches sufficiently, then they won’t be further digested after swallowing. If the type of starches we eat are soft such as cooked potatoes, white rice, pastas and bread, we often don’t feel a need to chew them very much due to their soft texture.
The chewing process converts insoluble starches into simple sugars. If the digestion of starchy foods is impaired, the body is then less able to extract the energy contained in our foods.
However, what is far worse is the genesis of disease from undigested starches continually passing throughout the stomach and into the gut where they ferment and create an additional toxic burden for the liver to process. Fermenting starches also create the gas we call bloating.
Irrespective if your food is soft, it’s vital to chew thoroughly!
And this is where ‘chewier’ foods such as whole grains are more beneficial for us, not only because of the extra vitamins and minerals they contain, but because they also promote more chewing…provided we do it!
The action of chewing also has another ‘secret’ feature that many don’t know about – the seventh cranial nerve that joins at the jaw bone junction. The stimulation of this nerve caused by the action of chewing sends a signal to the brain, telling the stomach to secrete hydrochloric acid and pepsin, an enzyme for digesting proteins.
During the digestive journey, these substances break proteins down into water soluble amino acids. To accomplish this, the stomach muscles agitate the food continuously, in the same way as a washing machine would. This extended churning forms a kind of ball in the stomach called a bolus (sounds like fun)!
The stomach’s acid environment inactivates ptyalin (previously produced by saliva) so any starch not converted to sugar in the mouth does not get properly processed thereafter. Stress can inhibit the churning action in the stomach so that otherwise digestible foods may not be mixed efficiently with digestive enzymes.
As a result, undigested proteins may pass into the gut (intestines). Now this is not desirable because undigested proteins putrefy in the gut (they’re actually attacked by anaerobic bacteria). Many of the waste products of anaerobic putrefaction are highly toxic and evil smelling.
After the stomach has finished churning, the partially digested food is moved into the small intestine where it is mixed with pancreatin (secreted by the pancreas) and bile from the gall bladder. Pancreatin further solublises proteins while bile aids in the digestion of fats in foods.
It is only after the proteins, fats and carbohydrates (starches and sugars) have been broken down into simpler water soluble food units (i.e. simple sugars, amino acids and fatty acids) that the body can pass these nutrients into the blood through the tiny projections in the small intestine called villi.
The left over elements of food that cannot be solublised, along with some remaining liquids, are passed into the large intestine. Water, along with dissolved vital mineral salts, are extracted and absorbed into the bloodstream through thin permeable membranes. Mucous is also secreted in the large intestine to facilitate the passage of the dryish remains.
The final residue, now called fecal matter, is squeezed (peristalsis) along the length of the large intestine and hopefully passes out the rectum. If all the digestive processes have been efficient there are now an abundance of soluble nutrients in the body for the blood stream to distribute to hungry cells.
The aim of this brief digestive journey is to help you understand how health is lost or regained through eating, digestion and elimination. Every process of digestion triggers the subsequent process. If one part is not performing properly, then the next process will not be triggered.
Various physical factors can adversely affect the process of digestion. Drinking fluids during or directly after meals dilutes digestive juices. Certain mineral deficiencies in the body will inhibit the production of some enzymes essential for optimum digestion. Heavy metals in the system have a similar effect.
Psychological aspects can have a major influence. Often when we eat we have little regard for what our body is experiencing. Generally there is a huge disconnection between our mind and our body. In the clinic I often try to bring awareness to how important connection is by discussing what our body’s trying to tell us with clues or messages about disharmony.
Our body does talk to us but we rarely listen to its language.
For example, clients often tell me that they feel they don’t digest well and have undigested food passing straight through. Insufficient chewing may be the cause, however we often discuss stress and what they may not be dealing with or ‘digesting’ in their life. And that is where we often find the remedy.
Another example is when parasites are detected in the body. Parasites, bacteria and viruses are around us every day, however when our internal environment is out of balance our immune systems don’t cope as well and we find that these bugs have taken residence.
Our internal environment is created by what we eat, drink and do in our life.
The way we think and emotional factors in our life are also contributors to this disharmony. When I am with a client who has parasites we talk about ‘what or who is parasitic in their life’ and why they are allowing this to happen i.e. giving their power away, instead of speaking their truth (with love). It’s an interesting area of discussion and invariably we discover a connection between the mind and body that can be extremely beneficial. Often people say “I knew this, but didn’t realise the connection.”
When we understand the relevance of the ‘healthy mind, healthy body’ relationship and listen to our body for the clues, the answers are often very clear. Consequently we feel and look better and life is a lot more enjoyable!