A healthy digestive system is foundational for good health. Digestion allows us to break down our food into usable nutrients necessary for survival. Many health concerns are rooted in a poorly functioning gut.
Our digestive system involves a series of coordinated steps. Each step relies on the steps before and each step requires the perfect environment. When this environment is disrupted our digestive power is reduced. Overtime this may lead to a number of health concerns.
How your digestive system works.
*Bold terms are further described below, under “terminology”.
Digestion begins in the mouth. Chewing allows for mechanical digestion of the incoming food. Your saliva then coats the food with salivary enzymes and begins chemical digestion. It’s important to chew your food enough times, 32 times in fact! This ensures the food particles are small enough for the enzymes to optimally perform chemical digestion. Another important factor is the environment. A tightly controlled pH is needed to these enzymes to work their best.
Once you swallow, your food moves down your esophagus into the stomach via peristalsis. Your gastric juices begin the next phase of digestion. Gastric juices contain hydrochloric acid and enzymes. This environment is VERY acidic. Again, a specific (acidic) pH is required to activate your stomach enzymes. As you can imagine, ensuring you have enough stomach acid is essential for a health digestive system. In the stomach, mechanical and chemical digestion continue.
Once sufficiently broken down, the food particles move into the small intestine. The pH in the small intestine is much higher than the stomach (more alkaline). Similarly, this specific pH is required to activate the intestinal enzymes. After chemical digestion is complete, food particles begin to get absorbed. This means the food particles move from the small intestine, through the intestinal lining into the blood. Once in the blood, these nutrients can be taken up and used by your cells.
Food products that are not absorbed get moved to the large intestine. Several things occur in the large intestine:
- The large intestine is home to trillions of bacteria known as the microbiota. They ferment the incoming food and have a long list of positive health effects.
- Water is reabsorbed in the large intestine.
- Metabolic by products (i.e. excess cholesterol, detox metabolites, old cells etc.) are excreted from our body into the large intestine for removal via defecation.
- Mechanical digestion – physical breakdown of food via chewing or mixing
- Chemical digestion – breakdown of food using enzymes
- pH – a measure of acidity or alkalinity. A high pH is alkaline, a low pH is acidic. A pH of 7 is neutral.
- Enzymes – in the digestive tract, enzymes are specific proteins that catalyze the break down of food. Optimal function requires food particles to be small, and the correct environmental pH
- Peristalsis – smooth muscle contractions that line your digestive tract and push food forward
Does your gut need to be powered up?
Our digestive system is a tightly regulated series of steps. If any of the steps are out of sync or suboptimal, our digestive power is reduced. Things we look out for when assessing your digestive power may include:
- Good pH balance (acid-base levels) – is the pH in a range that allows your salivary and intestinal enzymes to work?
- Good stomach acid levels – can you break down your foods into small enough particles?
- Do you produce enough enzymes?
- Do you have a strong intestinal lining allowing for proper absorption?
- Do you have good gut motility – can you move my food down your gastro-intestinal tract efficiently?
Symptoms of poor digestive power can be vague and nonspecific. Some signs may include:
- Irregular bowel movements
- Abdominal discomfort
- Food sensitivities
Additionally, digestive issues can result in wider, generalized symptoms. These may include:
- Brain fog or poor concentration
- Autoimmune disorders
- Joint pain or muscle aches
Working with an integrative health practitioner who can recognize and streamline treatment strategies is a great step if you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to start.
– Dr. Ashley Damm, ND
Naturopathic Doctor, Vancouver BC