Nutrients arrive in large molecules that are intricately bound together chemically and physically in foods. Digestion allows for the breakdown of these molecules into usable form through a combination of mechanical means (chewing) and chemical means (enzymes, stomach acid).
Fuel consumption (mouth)
Chewing food not only breaks our bites into bits we can swallow, but also mixes our mouthful with lubricating saliva. Saliva contains many chemicals, particularly the enzyme amylase, to help with starch digestion.
Speed bump: Gulping big chunks of food hampers digestion because your digestive processes can’t get to all the nutrients in your food, and large food fragments become fodder for bacteria that leads to gas and bloating.
Maintenance tip: Slow down when you eat and don’t force yourself to swallow: chew food until your swallow reflex kicks in.
Fuel tank (stomach)
Digestive juices contain acidic hydrochloric acid (HCl) and enzymes that help break down foods. The protein called intrinsic factor secreted by the stomach lining plays a role in the absorption of Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) in the intestine. B12 is involved in cellular metabolism and energy production. Conditions like atrophic gastritis can trigger a deficiency of intrinsic factor.
Speed bump: Too much liquid with your meal can dilute gastric juices and hamper digestion: have a glass of water 30 minutes before you eat, and then take only small sips of water during your meal.
Maintenance tip: Ask your health care provider whether you would benefit from Vitamin B12 shots or supplements for increased energy or to relieve anaemia symptoms.
Fuel injection (pancreas)
The role of the pancreas is to manufacture the enzymes amylase, lipase, pancreatin and protease required for digestion. These enzymes enable your body to completely metabolize the foods you eat, resulting in improved nutrient absorption and maximizing the nutritional benefit of food.
Speed bump: Your pancreas has roles outside of digestion, including production of insulin and glucagon to regulate blood sugar.
Maintenance tip: Ease the burden on your pancreas by taking digestive enzymes with any cooked meal.
Firing on all cylinders (intestines)
Most nutrient absorption takes place in the small intestine, through millions of tiny suction tubes that vacuum up small, digested food particles to transport them via the bloodstream to the liver.
Particles that remain pass through to the large intestine. Naturally present bacteria in the large intestine continue to break down remaining food particles. Larger proteins are fodder for the bacteria in the large intestine, leading to bloating and often foul-smelling gas. The large intestine extracts liquid from the digested food; waste products are stored in the rectum until the final exit from the body.
Speed bump: Diverticulosis involves sac-like out-pouchings called diverticula found in the digestive tract. Frequent straining or hard stools can cause diverticula to become inflamed, leading to painful cramping and diarrhea that can result in diverticulitis.
Maintenance tip: To prevent constipation, increase insoluble fibre intake. Enjoy celery, whole grains and leafy green vegetables. A diet high in soluble fibre, plentiful in apples, broccoli and strawberries as well as other fruits and vegetables, helps lower blood cholesterol levels.
The liver’s role in digestion is to produce bile, a watery solution that is necessary for breaking down dietary fat for absorption. The liver also filters blood, deactivating toxins or harmful particles in the bloodstream.
Speed bump: Digestion is only one of the liver’s hundreds of jobs. Acne and constipation are some signs that your liver may be over-worked.
Maintenance tip: Reduce intake of toxins like herbicides and pesticides. Opt for organic foods when possible, and limit alcohol consumption. Support your liver with herbs like dandelion and milk thistle.
Storage (gall bladder)
The gall bladder, a tiny sac adjacent to the liver, stores bile. When we eat a fat-containing meal, the gall bladder squirts bile into the duodenum to help break down the fat.
Speed bump: Because the gall bladder is a storage site, it can become irritated if bile contains toxins that have not been fully neutralized by the liver, leading to gall stones, migraines and skin problems.
Maintenance tip: Along with reducing intake of toxins to support the liver, herbs like chamomile, ginger and turmeric support healthy bile production. Vitamin C helps to fuel bile and bowel movement.
The next time you sit down for a meal, avoid the speed bumps and follow this owner’s manual to ensure your body is performing at its optimal level.
by Lisa Petty
First published in Canadian Health & Lifestyle magazine.