How to Optimize Digestion
In order to optimize digestion it is helpful to understand how our digestive system works and what can possibly go wrong. In having a deeper understanding of the digestive process we will be able to improve our digestive capacity through incremental changes to our diet and lifestyle.
A short explanation of the digestive system
After our food is chewed and swallowed it travels down the esophagus and into our stomach. For food that has not been well chewed, the lining of the stomach has soft teeth that will break it into smaller particles. The acids secreted by the stomach further break down the ingested food, so these smaller particles allow for more surface area of food in the stomach to be in contact with the acids. Within 15-30 minutes the food, now called chyme, is released into the small intestine.
The duodenum is the first part of the small intestine and it is where the common bile duct and the pancreatic duct join the small intestine. The gall bladder secretes bile through the common bile duct into the small intestine to break down fats. The pancreas secretes enzymes which continue the digestive process and neutralize the acid that is still present from the stomach contents into the small intestine through the pancreatic duct. Bile is produced in the liver and then used to break down fats and lipids with bile salts that emulsify them. The pancreatic enzymes begin breaking down carbohydrates and the stomach acid is neutralized by the secretion of bicarbonate.
Most of the chemical digestion takes place in the duodenum before the chyme continues its journey into the second and third parts of the small intestine called jejunum and ileum respectively. Small hair like projections, called villi line the inner wall of the small intestine. Fats that have been broken down by the bile are small enough to be pulled against the inner wall by the villi. Just beyond the outer wall of the small intestine is the gut associated lymphatic tissue (GALT) which digests fats and absorbs nutrients into the blood. Within the GALT fat soluble toxins such as pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, and other cancer causing chemicals are destroyed by the white blood cells in the lymphatic system. If these chemicals are not broken down by the bile then they are not easily absorbed by the lymph and will irritate the intestinal wall. The fat soluble nutrients absorbed through the lymph are directed into the bloodstream via the subclavian vein. Sometimes toxins in the lymph are not adequately destroyed and they come into the bloodstream as well. When this happens the liver will filter out these toxins and destroy them.
After the chyme has completed its journey through the small intestine it enters the large intestine. In the large intestine 80% of the bile that was secreted to break down fats is reabsorbed along with water and the feces are prepared to be eliminated.
Now that we have a better understanding of how the digestive system works we can look more deeply into the possible problems that may arise within the digestive tract.
Possible Problems with digestion
Once the chyme moves from the stomach into the small intestine it comes into contact with the bile, pancreatic enzymes and enzymes from the small intestine. If the bile secreted by the gall bladder is thick because of liver congestion then it obstructs the secretion of other enzymes into the duodenum from the pancreatic duct. This congestion minimizes the amount of bicarbonate that is secreted to buffer the stomach acid. The presence of acid in the small intestine will results in irritation of the intestinal wall. The body reacts by signaling the stomach to turn down the heat in order to stop the stomach acid from inflaming the intestinal wall; the stomach then produces less acid. The stomach acid is the first line of defense against invaders like bacteria, viruses and toxins and is the primary place where food is broken down into digestible increments. Furthermore, the mucosal lining of the stomach will weaken as it’s thickness is regulated by the amount of acid within its walls. When the production of acid is turned down the stomach lining will not be required to insulate against as much acid and this can lead to ulceration of the stomach lining. Some symptoms of low amounts of stomach acid are:
· Bloating, belching, or flatulence
· Feeling as though food sits in the stomach undigested
· Indigestion, diarrhea, constipation
· Multiple food allergies
· Nausea after taking supplements
· Weak fingernails
· Undigested food in stool
The liver produces the bile that is secreted by the gall bladder through the common bile duct. If the liver is busy destroying fat soluble toxins then the bile becomes thick. The thickness of the bile congests the common bile and pancreatic ducts. This congestion obstructs the secretion of bicarbonate and pancreatic enzymes which slows down the digestion. Additionally, thick bile obstructs the secretion of pancreas produced hormones such as blood sugar regulators like insulin. Normal bile also secretes immunoglobulin which protects the intestinal mucosa. When the bile is thick the lining of the small intestine is no longer adequately protected. in order to improve the digestion of fats and to keep the intestinal wall healthy it is important to thin the bile. Clues that your bile may be congested:
· The need for gallbladder removal
· Liver disease
· Thyroid issues
· Incomplete digestion and absorption of fats
· Frothy, bad smelling stools
The undigested food continues its journey through the small intestine. The large fat molecules that were not adequately digested compress the villi against the wall of the intestines compromising their ability to capture and absorb nutrients. In between the intestinal cells are junctions, called desmosomes, which do not permit large molecules to pass through. The desmosomes widen because the fat molecules are too big which causes the intestinal wall to get irritated. That can lead to leaky gut syndrome. Some man-made chemicals also compromise the lining of the intestinal wall, causing its components to lose the ability to discern between nutrients and foreign substances. If these irritants get into the lymphatic circulation they stimulate an antibody reaction. The intestines are home to trillions of bacteria that aid in the breakdown and digestion of fats. When the intestinal wall is damaged these beneficial bacteria create an environment in which the lining can heal. These beneficial bacteria are called probiotics. Probiotics help support the health of the villi and the intestinal wall by outcompeting foreign invaders such as bacteria, viruses and yeasts. If those invaders are not eliminated they may enter into circulation and could be transported anywhere in the body. Prebiotics promote the growth of probiotics and balance blood sugar levels while maintaining elimination. Initially prebiotic foods can lead to gas and bloating as the body produces probiotics, but this subsides in about a week. Foods that are high in prebiotics are:
· Jerusalem artichoke
Once the microclimate of the intestines has been improved by prebiotics it is beneficial to increase the amount of probiotics in your food. Examples of probiotic rich foods are:
· Fermented vegetables
· Raw vinegar
· Wheat grass juice
When the probiotics are not outcompeting pathogenic organisms then undigested fats may be absorbed into lymphatic circulation through the intestinal wall. Within the lymph vessels white blood cells in the GALT will attack the petrochemicals and man-made toxins that have made their way through the compromised small intestine. Normally these products are neutralized by the stomach acid and bile and are excreted in our stool. The combination of metabolic byproducts and the presence of large fat molecules will congest the lymphatic fluids over time. This congestion does not allow the lymph to neutralize the toxins and absorb the fats that have gone into circulation. The lymph vessels eventually merge their contents with venous circulation through the subclavian vein. If the man-made chemicals are not neutralized in the lymph glands then the toxins may end up in the bloodstream where they will have to be detoxified by the liver. If the liver is overwhelmed by trying to process the quantity of environmental toxins then the bile that it produces becomes thick and it has less energy to neutralize chemical substances.
When the bile is thick, the lymph becomes congested because the fat is not being broken down which makes the liver overwhelmed. Then the man-made chemicals and environmental toxins are not adequately neutralized. The liver will then find a safe place to store these toxins so it can process them at a later date. As most of these toxins are fat soluble they are lodged in our fat cells. If the liver gets desperate for fat cells, it puts the toxins back into circulation where they may lodge in the brain. Lastly the bile that is reabsorbed by the colon is stagnant and so the colon slows down and the bowel fatigues leading to constipation. This keeps toxins in circulation for longer as they are not eliminated on a daily basis. Foods that thin the bile are beets, radish, chicory, dandelion, mustard greens, turnip greens and artichokes.
In conjunction with optimizing the environment within the intestines it can be beneficial to restore gut integrity by eating foods that help to mend their lining. Foods that can accomplish this are:
· Cabbage juice
· Cabbage family foods
· Vegetable broth
· Vegetable juice
· Shiitake mushrooms
The key to detoxification is enhancing your digestive capacity and especially the ability of the body to digest fats. When the body adequately burns fat then the cancer causing chemicals that may come into the body are easily eliminated. That is the essence of Rhythm of Healing’s Ayurvedic cleanse. It allows the body to digest fats optimally leading to optimal digestion which feeds the entire body and promotes strength and clarity.