If you have any kind of health issue, don’t ignore the role of your digestive system (even if it feels unrelated).
Our digestive system (aka gastrointestinal tract) is vital for keeping us healthy. Its primary role is to break down your food into its components, eliminate what we don’t need and turn what we do need into something our body can use. It needs to be working well to keep itself happy as well as supporting the rest of our body.
Given that your digestive health relies so heavily on what you eat and drink, and most western diets are low in fruit and vegetables, it is not uncommon for clients to come into my clinic with digestive complaints, or to have health issues which can be traced back to poor digestive function.
Most of us have experienced digestive complaints at some point in our lives, whether they be a short-lived bout of gastro or a more chronic, ongoing problem like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), bloating, constipation, diarrhoea or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Sometimes the solutions are obvious and straight-forward but other times they require a bit more investigation.
What you eat and drink significantly dictates the health of your digestive system and therefore your overall well-being.
It directly affects every system in your body.
But let’s start with the basics. What organs make up your digestive system? What are some of the common signs of poor digestive function? And, most importantly, what are some simple things you can do to improve your digestion?
What makes up your digestive system?
The digestive system starts at the mouth (teeth and salivary glands) and ends with the anus. It includes the oesophagus, stomach, small intestine and large intestine. It relies on organs such as the liver, pancreas and gallbladder to support the break down, absorption and utilisation of nutrients to keep us alive and well.
Your digestive processes actually start when we look at and smell food.
By taking the time to smell your food you are signalling to your stomach to start producing gastric juices in readiness for the arrival of food. Then the act of chewing our food and mixing it will saliva begins the process of fat, protein and carbohydrate digestion.
The stomach starts to break down proteins and some nutrients such as non-haem iron, calcium and B12. It also absorbs some minerals such as iodine and copper. The stomach does this by producing gastric juices such as hydrochloric acid and pepsinogen. A good level of stomach acid is the first line of defence against any pathogens you may consume.
The production of hydrochloric acid and pepsinogen require nutrients such as protein, zinc, B6 and magnesium. Eating a diet rich in these nutrients helps the stomach produce and secrete adequate gastric juices to stimulate your appetite and breakdown food. If you don’t have enough of these gastric juices you may experience symptoms such as:
- Cramping immediately after eating
- A lack of appetite (read The importance of a good appetite and how to improve it)
- Slow bowel transit time (the time it takes for your food to be eaten and then excreted in the stool)
- Undigested food in your stool
The small intestine is approximately 5 – 7 metres in length and most of our digestion takes place here. The surface area approximates the size of a tennis court and it has three main parts; the duodenum, the jejunum and the ileum. The pancreas and gallbladder support digestion here by releasing enzymes and bile that help to breakdown protein, carbohydrates and fats into molecules that can be absorbed through the intestinal lining into our bloodstream for use by our cells.
The small intestine, like the stomach, is intended to be a sterile environment, or contain only a small amount of bacteria which usually live in harmony with the host. However, if this environment is disrupted by having low levels of gastric juices, or an overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria (sometimes referred to as SIBO or small intestine bacterial overgrowth), there can be significant disruptions to your digestive health.
The lining of the small intestine acts as a barrier, stopping pathogens and unwanted food particles from entering the blood stream. In the case of food intolerances or allergies, high levels of stress, an inadequate diet or regular consumption of alcohol or certain medications, this barrier may be compromised and allow the passage of unwanted molecules into the blood stream. This is what we refer to as intestinal permeability or “leaky gut”. This may then trigger immune reactions and other symptoms in other parts of your body.
You may need to address the health of your small intestine if you experience the following:
- Constipation and/or diarrhoea
- Headaches, allergies, food intolerances, autoimmune conditions and recurrent infections
- Eruptive skin conditions such as hives, eczema and psoriasis
- Excess burping and flatulence
- A worsening of symptoms if you eat fermented foods
The large intestine includes the caecum, colon, rectum and anus. This is where your beneficial microflora live (well the majority of them anyway) and this microflora breaks down any remaining carbohydrates and proteins. Your microflora perform a wonderful process called fermentation which produces Vitamin K and some B Vitamins (like B12), as well as supports your immune system by taking care of any pathogenic and opportunistic bacteria, fungi and yeasts. You can read more about how your microflora impacts your health here.
If your large intestine isn’t functioning as well as it should you may experience:
- Blood or mucous in the stool (always get this checked out by a GP)
- Pain on bowel movements
How can you improve your digestion?
Take your time to look at and smell your food before you start eating. As mentioned above, this stimulates the production of your gastric juices in readiness for food and therefore supports the breakdown of food.
So, eat your meals away from screens and take your time to chew each mouthful.
Enjoy some bitter foods before and with your meal
Bitter foods stimulate your appetite to produce gastric juices and saliva.
Lemon water 30 minutes prior to your meals gets your gastric juices flowing in readiness for your meal and is also a lovely tonic for your liver.
Foods such as rocket, dill, radish, kale and spinach are bitter foods so if you think you have issues with your digestion enjoy a salad with some of these ingredients with your meals.
Avoid drinking with a meal
Drinking with a meal dilutes your gastric juices and therefore your food may not break down as efficiently. So wait 30 minutes after eating before you drink any liquids.
Up your vegetable intake
Almost everyone in Australia could do with increasing their daily vegetable intake. Vegetables provide fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients which all support a healthy digestive tract. Some vegetables such as leeks, garlic and onions are also prebiotics which feed the good bacteria in your bowel.
Include probiotic rich foods into your meals
Probiotic foods include organic natural yoghurt, miso, tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir etc. These foods provide beneficial bacteria to your large intestine and supports the health of your digestive tract. If you notice an increase in your symptoms when eating these types of foods then get in touch. We may need to do some investigation to determine if the cause of your complaint is small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
Want more tips for improving your digestion, tap into 5 easy and effective ways to improve your digestion.
Does your digestion need some help?
As a naturopath I always question my clients about their digestion as it plays such a vital role in their health. By revving up their digestion, improving their microflora balance, and healing their gut we not only see less digestive symptoms but also improvement in pain, energy, brain fog, and more. If you have resonated with any of the signs or symptoms outlined above, please get in touch so I can help you optimise your digestive system, and your overall health.
Overall health and vitality is dependent on good digestion.