Digestion: The Building Blocks to a Healthier You
by Jessica Bischof
It has often been said, “you are what you eat,” but this is only partially true. In reality, you are what you eat and digest. You could eat the most amazing organic, locally sourced, whole food diet, and yet, if you cannot digest and assimilate it properly, you are only getting a fraction of the nutrition your food could be providing to your body.
Amazingly, digestion is something that is rarely discussed, even in the holistic health world! In my work as a Nutritional Therapy Consultant (NTC), I find that nearly all of my clients need to strengthen this foundational area.
How can you know if your digestion is working the way it should? Some types of digestion dysfunction are obvious, such as chronic constipation, frequent diarrhea, pain from acid reflux or heartburn, and foul-smelling gas. Other symptoms, such as a sense of excess fullness after meals, burping or belching, distaste for meat, fingernails that chip and break, and anemia that is unresponsive to iron supplements, often occur without being immediately identified as digestion issues. And finally, if taking digestive enzymes with your meals is helpful to you, that’s a sure sign that your body is not digesting optimally.
Digestion: The Basics
Digestion is a complex process, and you can read a longer explanation at http://www.beeyoutiful.com/buildingblockstohealthieryou but in this article I want to discuss the specific role that hydrochloric acid (HCl), more commonly known as stomach acid, plays in digestion.
Special cells in the lining of your stomach sense the arrival of food and secrete HCl, releasing it through the mucosa to mix with the meal you just ate. This acid is strong stuff, and has the goal of creating a very acid environment in the stomach, hopefully between 1.5 and 3.0 on the pH scale. This mixture is so acidic that it would burn a hole right through your carpet! This is a good thing as most bacteria, fungus, parasites, and other unfriendly critters can’t survive this extreme environment and are eliminated on their first stop through our digestive system.
Besides protecting you from pathogens, HCI also breaks apart the proteins in your food, whether animal or plant based. This is especially important to make the minerals in your foods available for absorption. For example, broccoli is high in calcium and beef is high in zinc, but if the food isn’t properly cleaved apart in your stomach, these minerals remain unavailable to you.
Once properly acidified, the contents of the stomach (called chyme) exit into the upper part of the small intestine and the pancreas sends over some juices to neutralize the acidity. Pancreatic enzymes, needed to break your food down into molecules small enough to be absorbed, also arrive with these juices. When this process happens correctly, the body can benefit from all the nutrition in the meal you just ate.
A Delicate Balance
As you can see, proper digestion is highly reliant on sufficient HCl production. If you aren’t secreting enough acid, the stomach will delay releasing the chyme to the small intestine; your body will be busily trying to create more acid and make sure that any critters that arrived in your food have been killed, and that your food has been appropriately broken apart so that you can digest it in the next phase. However, this increased time in the stomach also causes the food to start to ferment and putrefy, leading to a sense of over-fullness, burping, belching, and even heartburn as the contents expand.
This is the point at which you might be tempted to reach for antacids such as Tums, which is sad because it’s actually not too much acid that’s causing the problem, but too little. Eventually the stomach will give up and release the chyme. When chyme sent down to the small intestine isn’t highly acidic, it doesn’t need to be neutralized, so the pancreatic flush is not stimulated, and the critical pancreatic enzymes won’t be sent out to break down the meal into absorbable particles. Over time, this leads to nutritional deficiencies and a damaged gut lining, as the food which should have been broken down and absorbed into your bloodstream instead sits against the gut wall and continues to rot, feeding pathogenic bacteria, fostering candida overgrowth, and creating inflammation of the gut wall.
Now that you understand the importance of HCl for the digestive process, you’re probably wondering how you can make sure that you’re producing enough. Dr. Jonathan Wright, author of Why Stomach Acid is Good For You, reports that when tested at his Tahoma, WA clinic, over 90% of his patients were deficient in their production of stomach acid. This has been my experience as well, both in myself and in my clients: we are not producing the stomach acid we need to, and our nutrition and gut health is suffering as a result.
Keeping Things Working
HCl production is dependent on two things: having an adequate amount of zinc in the body and being in a relaxed, parasympathetic state when you eat.
Digestion is parasympathetic
When your nervous system is in parasympathetic mode, you’ll be relaxed and unstressed. In this mode, the body rests, the organs detoxify, and you properly secrete digestive juices, particularly HCl. When your sympathetic nervous system is dominant, you are instead prepared for activity and stress. In today’s fast-paced world, it’s easy to give in to the temptation to eat meals in the car, eat standing at the counter, and eat when multi-tasking. Unfortunately, none of these behaviors allow the parasympathetic side to dominate and digest food properly.
There are many nutrients that play a role in your body creating HCl, but zinc is the most important. Because you need zinc to make HCl, and you need HCl to absorb dietary zinc from your food, it is easy to upset this delicate balance and find yourself in the vicious cycle of poor digestion. Zinc plays a key role in supporting immunity and helping the body heal cuts. Poor wound healing and white spots on the fingernails point strongly to a zinc deficiency.
Three Hacks to Improve Your Digestion Today
1. Chew your food well. Chewing each bite 20-30 times breaks down your food well before it arrives in the stomach, saturates your food with saliva (which has enzymes that break down your food) and alerts your digestive system that ‘food is on the way.’
2. Limit water at meals. Getting adequate water each day is necessary for health, but catching up on hydration at mealtime dilutes your stomach acid and burdens digestion. Drink enough water to stay comfortable during meals (and to take your supplements), but put the majority of your water consumption at least 30 minutes prior to or 60 minutes after meals.
3. Relax, practice gratefulness, and think about eating. Relaxing and focusing on your food doesn’t seem like it would matter for digestion, but it does. Encourage your body to enter a relaxed, parasympathetic state while you eat. Savor your food and try to spend at least 15 minutes (more is great!) relaxed and enjoying every meal.
Supporting Digestion with Supplements
If you’re consistently following the tips above and still dealing with heartburn, a sense of fullness after meals, digestive symptoms, or the presence of undigested food in your stool, consider adding an acid supplement to facilitate digestion. A product like Belly Balance provides 648mg of HCl, along with 150mg of pepsin (an enzyme) which work together to assist digestion. Both the size of your meal, and the amount of meat in your meal will affect how much acid support you need to optimized digestion, so take more with a larger meal or a larger portion of animal protein.
Consider supplementing with zinc too (more information on this in my longer article on digestion, http://www.beeyoutiful.com/buildingblockstohealthieryou). Many people can decrease their need for HCl or eliminate it entirely once they reestablish their zinc stores. Supplementing with digestive enzymes, such as Digest Best or Digestive Enzyme** will also help digestion. Many people find that once they kickstart digestion with the proper use of HCl (Belly Balance), they are no longer dependent on enzymes, because their body now produces its own. **Digestive Enzyme contains ox bile, a necessity for anyone who doesn’t have a gallbladder.
When You Need More Help
Supplementing with acid-containing products for children is not recommended. Likewise, anyone with a history of GERD, recurrent heartburn or reflux issues or ulcers should not supplement with HCl without FIRST working with a qualified practitioner to heal these fragile tissues. Taking HCl is also not recommended for anyone taking an acid blocker, or proton pump inhibitor (things like Prilosec, Nexium, etc.).
I firmly believe in the importance of effective digestion and have seen the benefits in my own life. Guiding clients through this process is one of my areas of specialty. If you want to improve your digestion, but aren’t confident to make it a do-it-yourself project, or if you have special considerations you know need to be addressed, I invite you to schedule a complimentary 15-minute appointment to discuss your concerns and see if we are a good fit to work together.
Jessica is a Nutritional Therapy Consultant and the owner of Simple Steps Nutrition where she works with clients both in the US and internationally to create customized nutritional protocols and lifestyle modifications to support healing and function in the body.
Her own health challenges started in her early 20’s after the birth of her first child and forced her to become educated about what her body needed to heal. She believes that through healing and supporting the underlying cause you can actually regain health, not just treat symptoms.
Jessica specializes in restoring energy, resolving fatigue issues, balancing hormones, digestive issues, and adrenal healing. Jessica offers a complimentary 15 minute consultation for anyone who would like to find out more. Visit www.simplestepsnutrition.com for information.