Digestion is the breaking down of food into smaller components that can be absorbed, for instance, by a blood stream. In mammals, food enters the mouth, is chewed by teeth, and broken down by the saliva. It travels down the esophagus into the stomach where acids break most of it down. Leftovers go through the small and large intestines, and are excreted during defecation. Healthy digestion requires support for all the different components of digestion.
Chewing is the physical process of breaking the food down into smaller fragments. Thorough chewing mixes food well with saliva, moistening the food particles and beginning the process of starch and fat digestion. It also signals the body to begin the digestion process. When a meal is not chewed well, the food fragments are too big. Inadequate chewing results in incomplete digestion. This means not only nutrients being unabsorbed, but also bacterial overgrowth, gas and symptoms of indigestion.
After chewing, the food’s next stop is the stomach, where an adequate amount of stomach acid is required for the breakdown of proteins. Without adequate stomach acid, protein and Vitamin B-12 digestion is affected. If necessary, these digestive factors can be replaced with appropriate supplementation. Digestive enzyme support can also be obtained from fresh pineapple or papayas, which contain the enzyme bromelain, and other fresh vegetables and herbs. Processed foods, like canned pineapple, contain little enzyme activity since digestive enzymes are destroyed by the heat of the sterilization process. Beginning a meal with fresh fruits or salad can provide support for healthy digestion.
Identify and eliminate food allergens. When an allergic reaction occurs, the immune system perceives specific food molecules as hostile invaders. It forms antibodies, which latch onto these allergens to assist in their removal. As a result, inflammation can occur along the intestinal tract lining, interrupting the absorption process and causing damage to the lining. Gastrointestinal inflammatory diseases – such as diverticulosis or inflammatory bowel disease and celiac sprue (intolerance of gluten found in wheat products) – also result in damage to the intestinal wall.
Support the gastrointestinal barrier. The gastrointestinal cell wall is the barrier between what you ingest and the inside of your body; therefore, the integrity of this barrier is vital to your health. Support for the mucus that covers the cells in the gastrointestinal tract is very important, especially in the stomach.
Provide a healing environment for the small intestine. Studies show that the small intestinal tract barrier can become leaky under some conditions. The cells lose their attachment to each other resulting in a wall with holes between the cells instead of a strong, connected and continuous surface. When this “leaky gut” happens, molecules can get inside the body that normally wouldn’t be transported through the intestinal cell wall. Things that should get in can’t and the body doesn’t get the nutrition it needs. Anything that irritates the lining of the gastrointestinal tract can cause leaky gut, but a major contributor is inflammation (e.g., food allergies). Leaky gut occurs under stress. It is found after radiation treatments and some chemotherapy for cancer, with diseases such as inflammatory bowel, and bacterial infections.
Eliminating food you are intolerant, or allergic, to can help provide a healing environment in the small intestine. Carotenoids, a precursor to Vitamin A, may be particularly important since Vitamin A supports the maturation of epithelial cells – the type of cells that line the intestinal tract. It is the mature epithelial cells that form the strongest barrier in the intestinal tract. Carotenoids are found at high levels in vegetables, especially the orange- and red-colored vegetables.
The cells that line the intestinal tract need fuel to continue their process of nutrient intake. The preferred fuel for these cells is the amino acid called glutamine, which can be obtained from proteins. The small intestinal tract cells also require energy to maintain the integrity of the cell wall. Production of energy requires healthy levels of Vitamin B-5. Mushrooms, cauliflower, sunflower seeds, corn, broccoli, and yogurt are concentrated sources of Vitamin B-5. The intestinal tract cells also require a number of vitamins, so adequate overall nutrition is necessary.
Learn how to deal with stress effectively. Research has shown that the intestine responds negatively to stress. The intestinal lining becomes leaky, absorption is less effective, and your body is unable to selectively take up the nutrients it needs. Foods with a calming effect include herbal teas, like chamomile. Alcohol, caffeine, and refined carbohydrates, like table sugar, should be avoided. Eating meals at regular times and in a relaxed environment can also help decrease stress.