Ode to Digestion
While an ode to digestion might sound a bit strange, digestion is one of the foundations that I focus on as a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner. Digestion is impacted by everything from the mood you are in while sitting down to eat your food all the way through the frequency of bowel movements that eliminate waste from the body. When one spends the time and money to eat a whole food nutrient dense diet, digestion is key so it does not go to waste. So much of what goes into the body must be able to be properly digested by the body in order to utilize the nutrients. The digestion process is also important to be able to eliminate waste and toxicity effectively. In the following sections we will discuss the different ways digestion impacts the systems and processes of the body and why it is one of the first things we will focus on when working together.
Raising children tends to bring illnesses of all sorts, both acute and at times chronic illnesses. Many micro and macronutrients are needed by the body to create cells in the immune system. When a person is experiencing significant immune activation (whether acutely sick or a chronic illness) it is important to supply the immune system with all of the nutrients it needs as well as ensuring the body can access those nutrients. Strong stomach acid is needed to separate these nutrients from the food we eat. If food isn’t being properly broken down the body doesn't always recognize it for what it is and calls on the immune system to deal with it like a foreign invader. This puts additional stress on the immune system when what it really needs most is to access the nutrients in that food!
Stomach acid also comes into play in another way. - it is one of our first defenses against potential invaders, disinfecting much of what enters our
those nutrients. Strong stomach acid is needed to cleave off these nutrients from the food. If food isn’t being properly broken down the body doesn't always recognize it as food and calls on the immune system to deal with it like a foreign invader. This puts additional stress on the immune system when what it really needs most is to access the nutrients in that food!
body so the rest of our digestive tract is protected. Weak stomach acid can allow these invaders to pass through to the intestine where they can cause GI symptoms or disrupt the microbiome that provides a layer of protection between the gut and the body. If this barrier is weakened, food particles or pathogens can pass through and enter the body causing inflammation and other potential issues such as autoimmunity and allergies. This means the immune system will be activated to deal with food particles and other substances that escape the intestinal tract - diverting attention and energy from other issues it needs to deal with and contributing to problems such as allergies, food intolerances and even auto-immune illnesses. (1)
The endocrine system is responsible for the creation and use of hundreds of hormones throughout our body. When we think of hormones, we typically think of sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone - both of which are part of the endocrine system supporting reproductive health. Hormones also govern growth and development, your sleep wake cycle, metabolism and energy balance, and are a key part of your digestive system. Many hormones are made of amino acids which come from proteins as well as fatty acids and other minerals. Here we come back around to stomach acid. Optimal stomach acid is necessary to break down protein into usable amino acids. Stomach acid is also involved in the process of cleaving off minerals from the food we eat that support organ system function throughout the body. Fats are an important component of many hormones, so supporting fat digestion gives our body better building materials to produce hormones with. What we eat turns into all of the things our body needs to properly manage our day to day functions. (2)
After having children many women struggle with their hormones, whether not producing enough of some hormones for our daily needs or having an abundance of others our body is not able to eliminate. Women in this season especially need to pay attention to nourishing their bodies with enough nutrient dense food, as well as optimizing the digestive process to utilize these nutrients. Living in a state of chronic nutrient deficiency is a stressful state for our bodies which then ropes in the adrenal system. Elevated stress response affects the levels of cortisol in our system which then has an impact on our blood sugar, which can lead to issues with our thyroid or other sex hormones and on and on. Lack of nutritional intake and the absorption of nutrients can lead to a cascade of dysfunction (3) with wide ranging impacts. Spending time supporting your digestion will serve to support your body as a whole including your endocrine system.
Most of us want to maintain a strong cardiovascular system as we age, so how can we do that? Let’s look at this through the lens of our digestive tract to start. Strong stomach acid (again! Notice a pattern yet?) is needed to break down the protein that provides amino acids necessary for heart function such as Taurine and Carnitine as well as calcium and B-Vitamins. (4)
Our heart also needs fatty acids to function as they are the primary source of energy for the heart. Balancing our intake of fatty acids with an optimal Omega 3/Omega 6 ration is great for keeping inflammation down BUT we need to be able to digest those fats in order for the body to use them in the appropriate manner. This means supporting our liver and gallbladder to ensure healthy bile flow to break down the fats we eat. If we are not able to break down fats they can become irritating to the body and cause inflammation rather than contributing supportive building blocks. (5)
While we want a strong microbiome in our intestinal wall to protect against invaders, it is also in this place our body produces certain vitamins, specifically vitamin K2. Many of us know that calcium is associated with strong bones, however it is also essential for the heart as it signals it to contract. K2 is important to have in optimal levels alongside calcium because it tells where to use calcium so that it ends up in the right places (your bones and for muscle signaling) and does not deposit it in sub optimal places such as arteries which can cause inflammation. (5). Supporting the microbiome in our digestive tract helps our body produce the vitamins it needs to support our cardiovascular system. Taking steps to support digestion and take care of our body will support us as we age and allow us to keep up with our children at all stages of life
Detoxes and cleanses are everywhere! We live in a toxic world and it seems like many people these days are on cleanses or doing a detox. In practice, detoxification is a complex process that involves much of the body. Each organ and body system uses different nutrients to complete the roles they play in the detoxification process, however if the body is not able to absorb enough nutrients from the food we ingest we can still struggle with detoxification. Hello old friend stomach acid!
This can also be problematic with fat digestion which relies on bile rather than stomach acid. Poor fat digestion puts a burden on our liver, which is an important player in the detoxification process. It processes everything from caffeine to excess hormones so it is constantly working for us. Poor fat digestion can also clog up our lymph which aids the liver in the filtering of toxins from our body.
Speaking of bile - bile is also an important part of toxin elimination as it carries many toxins out of the liver into the intestines for eventual elimination during a bowel movement. If you are experiencing constipation while beginning a detox protocol your body will not be able to eliminate all of the toxins in a timely manner. This will burden the body and cause the toxins to recirculate and be reprocessed by the liver which is costly in nutrients. Before embarking on a detox protocol, working with an NTP to help make sure your body is ready will ensure a smoother time of it. (6)
The Secret Life of Your Microbiome
A fascinating book, The Secret Life of Your Microbiome (Prescott and Logan, 2017), has a number of studies and things to implement that will impact both your body and microbiome in a positive manner. One thing that stood out to me, especially as a mom, was the positive benefits of nature and biodiversity. People tend to be drawn to nature, as Prescott and Logan documented in their book (p102). Through a number of different studies the authors show that different components of being in a nature - a forest for example - have positive impacts on the nervous system. Sounds, chemicals from trees and touching nature all help support the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for rest and digestion. (7)
As a mom, sometimes sleep is lacking for both you and kids. Stress can be high for a number of reasons. Stress also has a negative impact on a number of systems such as digestion and blood sugar regulation, the latter of which can have a big impact on energy. Spending time in nature can help support the stress response and has even been found to have a positive impact on mood and inflammation. Next time you or your kids wake up cranky, try spending some time outside and see what that does for you!
1. Nutritional Therapy Association (2020) Immune System Student Guide [PDF document] https://nutritionaltherapy.instructure.com/courses/178/files/28300?wrap=1
2. Nutritional Therapy Association (2020) Endocrine Function [PDF document[ https://nutritionaltherapy.instructure.com/courses/178/files/34780?wrap=1
3. Nutritional Therapy Association (2020) Endocrine Dysfunction [PDF document] https://nutritionaltherapy.instructure.com/courses/178/files/34781?wrap=1
4. Nutritional Therapy Association (2020) Cardiovascular Health Function [PDF document] https://nutritionaltherapy.instructure.com/courses/178/files/34789?wrap=1
5. Nutritional Therapy Association (2020) Cardiovascular Health Dysfunction [PDF document] https://nutritionaltherapy.instructure.com/courses/178/files/34790?wrap=1
6. Nutritional Therapy Association (2020) Detox Dysfunction [PDF document] https://nutritionaltherapy.instructure.com/courses/178/files/34794?wrap=1
7. Prescott, S. L., & Logan, A. C. (2017). The secret life of your microbiome: Why nature and biodiversity are essential to health and happiness. New Society Publishers. p102-103