Updated: Sep 21, 2020
In nutritional therapy we consider six basic foundations when it comes to health which are:
Properly Prepared Nutrient Dense Foods
Blood Sugar Regulation
We focus on the foundations because usually, no matter what the health problem you are experiencing, the root cause is likely because one or more of these foundations are out of balance. Identifying the specific foundation(s) that your body is struggling with and providing the appropriate support it needs is the essence of the nutritional therapy approach.
For today’s blog I’d like to showcase the foundation of digestion because this is arguably the most critical foundation to have securely in place. It is even more important than the actual food you eat. Why? Because you can have the best diet on the planet but it won’t matter if you are unable to digest it properly and fully absorb the nutrients. Every cell of every organ relies on digestion to provide it with what it needs to function properly.
So first things first, digestion is what we call a “north to south” process. Obviously when we eat food it travels north to south, so to speak. But digestion actually begins even further north than our mouth, it starts in our brain. We actually start the digestion process as soon as we start to think about food. When we smell food cooking or even think about delicious foods we start to salivate. Our brain starts to send signals to the stomach to start producing more acid and digestive juices because food is on the way. Is it weird that I'm starting to get hungry right now just thinking about this?
Anyway, another thing about digestion is that it is a parasympathetic nervous system process. Have you heard the phrase “rest and digest”? That’s what the parasympathetic nervous system controls. The other side of the coin is the sympathetic nervous system, AKA what brings us into “fight or flight”. In order to digest properly and efficiently, it is best for us to be in a calm and relaxed state while we are eating. If you are stressed out and rushing around trying to eat lunch on the go, chances are you are in sympathetic mode and likely aren’t going to digest well at all.
So the first step in improving your digestion is to sit down and take a few deep breaths before you take your first bite. Express gratitude for the meal (either out loud or in your head). Think of all the people who were involved in bringing this meal in front of you (the farmers, field workers, truckers, grocers etc). If you eat animals, take a moment and thank them for giving their life. Take time to enjoy the aroma, various textures, beauty and colors of the food on your plate. Set your worries and your phone aside and enjoy the company you have at the table. If you are dining alone, dim the lights, set some candles and have a little romantic dinner with yourself, you deserve it!
There. Wasn’t that easy? You haven’t even had to eat a vegetable yet and you’ve already started improving your diet.
The next step is to chew your food! That may seem like a no-brainer but check in on yourself the next time you are eating. How many chews before you swallow? It is recommended we chew each bite 30 times or until the food is a liquidy pulp. This not only begins the mechanical breakdown of the food, but it also begins the chemical breakdown, particularly with carbohydrates when they mix with the enzyme amylase in the saliva.
Another reason to chew your food thoroughly is it gives your brain time to notify the digestive organs about the food that is about to come down the hatch. The pancreas and gallbladder start gearing up to release enzymes and bile. If we only chew food a few times, the stomach has to work extra hard to break it down mechanically or the food may not break down at all causing all sorts of a ruckus as it travels south. The stomach, pancreas and gallbladder also may not have gotten the memo that they need to kick into action.
Speaking of the stomach, let's talk about heartburn. We’ve probably all experienced the unpleasant burning sensation of indigestion at one point or another. For some, this can become a daily occurrence and can ultimately lead to a pretty serious condition called Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). When we experience heartburn, it burns! So immediately we want to reach for something to give us some cooling relief. The World Health Organization estimates that over 10 billion dollars are spent annually worldwide on antacids and the number of people being diagnosed with GERD is growing rapidly (Global Antacid Market Growth, 2018). Antacids are a huge market, whether they are over the counter or by prescription.
It's natural to think that if we are experiencing heartburn, it must be because we have too much stomach acid, because that’s certainly how it feels. However, this is a prime example of symptom chasing rather than seeking the root of the problem. Heartburn is often a sign that we actually don’t have ENOUGH stomach acid, or that our stomach acid is at the wrong pH (level of acidity). Allow me to explain.
When we swallow our food, it travels down the esophagus and enters the stomach through the lower esophageal sphincter. The food enters the stomach where it is met with a cocktail of digestive juices that include hormones, enzymes and hydrochloric acid. Once the food, which is now called “chyme” has been churned and mixed for a while it should have reached an optimal level of acidity. This optimal pH range is pretty narrow, but is necessary for the proper absorption of many vitamins, minerals, proteins and amino acids (Wright, Lenard, 2001). For example, calcium can only be absorbed and utilized in acidic conditions, yet we’ve been told Tums are a good source of calcium, despite the fact that the antacid will hinder it’s absorption. Not to mention the calcium carbonate found in the Tums is not the most readily available form of calcium for our bodies. Basically, it's a lose-lose situation that I don't recommend.
Once the chyme has reached the optimal pH it will head south into the first portion of the small intestine called the duodenum. Here the duodenum has receptors that sense the pH level of the chyme, if it is sufficient it secretes sodium bicarbonate to neutralize the chyme so that it won’t burn the sensitive intestines as it continues south. However, if the chyme leaving the stomach has not reached a pH that is optimal, the duodenum say “Oh, you’re not ready to continue on” and it pushes the chyme back into the stomach to continue mixing with the digestive juices. When the food sloshes back into the stomach, it can cause some of the stomach acid to splash up into the lower esophagus and voila! We have ourselves some heartburn (Wright, Lenard, 2001).
A simple, whole foods way of supporting the stomach when you experience heartburn is to sip a small amount of raw apple cider vinegar (ACV) before or after meals. As an experiment, the next time you are feeling indigestion try drinking a tablespoon or so of ACV plain or diluted with just enough water to make it palatable. It may seem counterintuitive, but it really works!
While we’re on the stomach acid train, one other thing I’d like to suggest is for you to avoid drinking a large amount of water immediately before, during and after meals. You can certainly sip water throughout your meal but water has a neutral pH. Considering how important stomach acid pH is, we don’t want to dilute it with too much water, especially if you are already prone to heartburn. I recommend hydrating between meals and waiting at least 30 minutes before or after eating.
1. Digestion is a parasympathetic process, AKA “rest and digest”. When eating a meal, sit down, take a few breaths and set your worries (and phone) aside.
2. Chew your food at least 30 times or until it is a liquidy pulp.
3. Sip a small amount of raw apple cider vinegar before meals if you are prone to heartburn or try it the next time you experience indigestion.
4. Try not to drink a large amount of water immediately before, during and after your meal to avoid diluting your stomach acid.
5. If you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend you read the book “Why Stomach Acid is Good For You” by Jonathan V. Wright, MD and Lane Lenard, Ph.D
Thanks for taking the time to read my blog today! I hope it is of benefit to you and your loved ones. If you are experiencing digestive discomfort and would like to dig a little deeper, consider making an initial nutritional therapy consultation with me so we can pinpoint which foundation(s) need support.
Global antacid market growth is expected to be driven by increasing incidence of gastroesophageal reflux disease globally. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.marketwatch.com/press-release/global-antacid-market-growth-is-expected-to-be-driven-by-increasing-incidence-of-gastroesophageal-reflux-disease-globally-2018-03-14
Wright, J.V., MD & Lenard, L.,PhD. (2001) Why stomach acid is good for you. Lanham, Maryland: M. Evans