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The Under-Appreciated Role of Digestion

Think about something for a second. How often do YOU place conscious thought on the process of your digestion or how well-functioning your digestive system is? If you’re like most people, the likelihood is that you assume; food eaten = food digested. My belief, especially these days is that this concept is likely an incorrect assumption with insidiously detrimental consequences as a result. Digestion itself is truly an amazing process. This interconnected process of how food is broken down in the specific organs of the body in a specific sequence is designed to maximize the; ability to absorb as much of what we eat for the one goal of supplying energy to build new cells and sustain your health. The unfortunate part when it comes to gut health is that we emphasize the microbiome (which is wonderful), but we don’t place the same emphasis on digestion and the nuance of its processes. I think just as we want healthy microbiomes for all, we should want…correction, NEED healthy digestion for the opportunity to have that healthy microbiome we covet so much.

Let’s dive in! Digestion starts not when we swallow our food, but rather when we actually see or more so smell what we are about to eat. This is called the cephalic phase of digestion. This prepares our body in a multitude of subconscious ways to upregulate digestive function so all the organs of digestion make their requisite secretions. This is so that we can break down the complex molecules that we eat (proteins, carbs, fats), into simple molecules our body can absorb (amino acids, fatty acids, glucose). This process is very much hormone and nervous system dependent because the gut requires vagus nerve signalling for the sequenced digestive process as well as hormone signalling within the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) which regulates the amount of secretion required to break down the chosen food. Think about that for a second, no matter what you eat, your body will always make the appropriate chemical soup of digestive secretions to break it down! Well, only if you’re in a state that is primed for digestion... The vast majority of people ask their bodies to perform a parasympathetic process (digestion) when it a sympathetically dominant state (activity or stress). These variables unfortunately end up working against each other when it comes to optimizing the digestive process, and we NEED to know that process intricately in order to best support it when we or a client experiences disturbances or issues that need to be remedied.

The Digestive Cascade

After you see and smell the food, its all about chewing. Proper chewing exposes maximal surface area so that carb-digesting enzymes (salivary amylase) in your saliva can start to break long sugar chains into smaller ones. Chewing also helps prepare the next step when food is swallowed in the stomach.

Stomach action is all about protein digestion which requires HCL which helps to denature protein providing the pH is at an appropriately low level. This low pH also activates pepsin which is a protein splitting enzyme that starts to unfold proteins for further digestive action.

After food leaves the stomach, the drop in pH then stimulates the release of enzymes from the pancreas and bile from the gallbladder. This is a very critical step because it’s the last large molecule action prior to the food being absorbed within the small intestine. The pH has to be neutralized from the stomach so that the enzymes and bile can appropriately work on further breaking things down into smaller and smaller units of macronutrients.

The last step is the “brush border” or the epithelial barrier where absorption takes place. The final action here is that proteins are made into tiny peptides and amino acids. Carbs are made into glucose and small sugar units. Fats are packed into chylomicrons and sent to circulate in the lymphatic system. This is each step in a perfect world…..sadly we do not live in a perfect world and in many cases there are many people out there who have issues with some or ALL of this process. This is where intervention is needed on a microscale to support what is not working with digestive enzymes, HCL, and whatever else may be warranted. On the macroscale we must ask, where did this process go wrong and how can we help things systemically?

This is of course unique to each individual person but the reality of the situation is that we do NOT talk about digestion enough nor place emphasis on making it a focus. When you improve digestive function, ALL things in the body receive some benefit. The other thing to think about is how much of a role does compromised digestion play in the genesis of dysbiosis, leaky gut, and the like? Well come next month, we will be exploring that topic in depth so stay tuned!

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