Have you ever wondered about your gut health? In this post, I will go through what the gut is, symptoms of a gut that is out of balance, and ways to support it.
What we eat and assimilate is so important for the health and wellbeing of every cell in our body. This is how we get the nutrients that keep us alive and well. A sick gut can leave us with a myriad of problems, whereas a healthy gut can have us feeling full of energy and running in tip top shape.
If this topic is of interest to you, check out these two earlier posts – Quick Tips for Better Digestion – Part 1 and Quick Tips for Better Digestion – Part 2. They both list more tips to keep your gastointestinal (GI) tract going smoothly.
The Journey of One Bite
Let me take you on the journey of a piece of food – Magic School Bus style (although I am not nearly as cool as Lily Tomlin!) Think of your favourite food, whatever it is. Imagine it is right in front of you and you are about to eat it. Mine is a delicious, baked potato fry.
Even before we take that first bite, the sight and smell of food signals to our digestive tract that we are about to eat. Our mouth starts producing saliva and the stomach starts to release gastric juices.
When we finally put the piece of food in our mouth, many things are going on at once. The physical breakdown of food occurs through chewing, and more saliva is produced to help create a mushy ball of goop. Saliva contains an enzyme that specifically breaks down starches into smaller pieces that make it possible for the small intestine to absorb.
So now we have chewed the piece of our fave food and it is a soft mush with no chunks (aka the bolus). It is now swallowed, first it enters the pharynx and quickly makes it to the esophagus. Once the bolus leaves the mouth, digestion is now out of your conscious control. The body takes over fully from here.
The automatic movement of food down the digestive tract is called peristalsis and is so automatic that even if you were eating upside down, your food ball would still get to the next stop.
The stomach is next on the journey for our little bolus. By this time, the stomach will have hydrochloric acid and other gastric juices waiting. The stomach is mainly for protein digestion. The acidity of the juices activates an enzyme that breaks down protein and the walls of the stomach begin rigorous contractions and rippling that mix the liquid around.
Our favourite food is no longer recognizable! The stomach is not a place of absorption, other than alcohol and aspirin. All the contents continue to move on.
The Small Intestine
The bolus is now considered chyme and continues on to the small intestine. There is a valve that will only allow a small amount of chyme through to the small intestine at a time, so it will not be overloaded. This is important because the small intestine is the site of the majority of nutrient absorption, which is necessary for our continued life.
When the chyme reaches this stage, carbohydrates and proteins have only been partially digested whereas the fats have been left almost untouched. At this point, juices from the pancreas and gallbladder (bile) are released. They are responsible for making the chyme more basic (from acidic), complete the digestion of starch, continue protein digestion, and are totally responsible for fat digestion.
As if that isn’t enough, the small intestine is also responsible for the absorption of water and the end products of digestion. When absorbed, the nutrients are taken to the liver to be processed and then sent out into the body. Chyme can spend 3-6 hours looping through the many coils and twists of the small intestine.
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The Large Intestine
The product that is left in the small intestine at this point is then moved into the large intestine. It contains very little nutrients but will still spend 12-24 hours there. The large intestine is the home of many bacteria. The bacteria are responsible for making some vitamins like vitamin K and some B vitamins, digesting foods that the stomach and small intestine cannot, they are important in immune function, and helping us fight off other microorganisms.
When the large intestine has absorbed all the water and nutrients it can, what is left is a solid product containing undigested food particles, mucus, millions of bacteria, and just enough water for smooth passage. This is what feces is made of. Interesting, no?!
The journey is over with the release of feces which ideally happens once to three times per day.
The Benefits Of A Healthy Gut
A healthy gut is a rare thing these days. Our food supply, our increased reliance on medications, increased stress, and our war on germs all add up to problems in our digestive tract.
Celiac disease, food allergies and sensitivities, gas, bloating, digestive pain, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine headaches, anxiety, depression, skin inflammation, nutritional deficiencies, the list of maladies goes on.
When our gastrointestinal tract is not working optimally, we pay the price. If you are feeling anything but energetic and happy to be alive, then you may want to work at supporting this system. Below I have listed some easy ways to work at supporting this system. It is just a basic, general list.
To establish a healthy digestive system, there are a few changes you can make. These are simple things that will help you no matter where you are in your healthy, vegan journey.
- Chew food 20-30 times per bite. This takes the unnecessary stress off of your stomach and will help everything flow easier.
- Drink before or after a meal, not during
- Eat in a relaxed state of mind
- Eat a bitter food before a meal – the bitter taste sets off the digestive cascade
- Reduce alcohol, tobacco, nitrates, caffeine, sugar
- Increase fiber and water intake
- Increase the amount of whole foods while decreasing processed/refined foods
- Avoid bad fats (trans) or too much fat. This will strain the small intestine and overburden the liver and gallbladder.
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The body runs and lives off of what we ingest and assimilate. We not only have to be aware of the quality and quantity of food we eat, but we must also make sure our GI tract is absorbing all of the good stuff that it can as well as keeping the bad things moving through our system. When there is a problem, every cell in the body can be affected. Our digestion is our source of energy and nutrients and its health is needed for us to stay healthy and vibrant.
To check out more ways to help digestion check out two other posts where I go into detail about each of the suggestions (Quick Tips for Better Digestion – Part 1 and Quick Tips for Better Digestion – Part 2.)