You Are What You Absorb !
Often when we talk about getting healthy we discuss the importance of exercise or movement and then also your diet because most of us now realise that we literally 'are what we eat'.
Or are we ?
In truth, when food is put into your mouth and then it travels along the digestive (gastro-intestinal) tract before coming out the other end, although that food is inside us, its technically not part of us until we absorb the nutrients through the walls of the tubes that form the GI tract and into our blood before being distributed and assimilated appropriately by our bodies. It's quite possible for food to be in our intestines but until it's passed through the mucosal barrier walls of the intestinal tube and absorbed into the bloodstream it may be considered that it's not actually in our body. Thus the phrase 'You are what you eat' could more accurately be rephrased to mean 'You are what you absorb' !
The wrong foods (along with many other factors as I hope to explain in this article) could cause the body to struggle to absorb the nutrients it needs. Equally worryingly, the wrong foods and other factors can cause the body to absorb all sorts of the wrong stuff that it doesn't need. This is a whole other problem and we'll take a look at the issues caused by a commonly misdiagnosed 'leaky gut syndrome' later in the article.
An improper diet can ruin a perfectly good digestive system. Even if you're eating a perfect diet i.e. organic, grass fed, free range whole foods in proportions ideal for your metabolic type, if your digestive system is not working properly then your health could still suffer because you won't be able to absorb the nutritional goodness that is contained within your healthy food intake.
In order for a healthy diet to have an effect and improve your levels of health we must ensure that our gut (digestive system) is fully functional. At Bodyguards, we pride ourselves on improving the health of our clients by working from the inside out and it all starts here, with digestion.
There is a much over-looked direct correlation between the health of your body, the way you look, the way you feel, your physical and mental performance with the health and level of function of your digestive system.
Your Food's Journey
Let's take a brief overview of what exactly your digestive system consists of and how it works:
Although the mouth is the first place your food arrives during the eating process its worth pointing out that digestion or at least the process of digestion is actually initiated by the eyes, the nose, the fingers (touch) and even the ears before we even taste the food on our tongue ! The moment you see a tasty food or smell its aroma or hear it crackling during the cooking process, the moment you pick that food up and feel its texture your body begins to start the digestive process which initially causes a release of saliva in the mouth. We all know this, when you smell that steak sizzling away in the griddle pan or when you peel an orange and can smell the fresh juices bursting out of the piece of fruit your mouth can start to water. This is your body's first step in preparing to digest and assimilate some tasty nutrition. The body is anticipating an intake of nutrients and therefore prepares itself. It underlines the importance of preparing your food and thus why modern processed pre-packaged, pre-prepared and even pre-cooked ready-meals that involve minimal preparation can cause a problem in terms of not allowing you to anticipate that food, properly break it down and absorb it into your body. Food must be chewed thoroughly until it is liquefied ! Whilst chewing we release even more saliva which contains vital enzymes which begin the process of breaking down carbohydrates in particular. If food isn't chewed sufficiently and we chuck it down our neck, the larger chunks of the food prove difficult for the stomach acids to breakdown and kill any unwanted parasites or fungi hidden inside the particles of food. Essentially, it's not being correctly prepared for proper digestion and the likelihood is that we won't absorb as much of the goodness as we could and we invite any unwanted bacteria to reside within our gut ! The problem of unfriendly parasites is a huge topic for discussion at a later date in another article but be aware that a lot of the problems associated with fungal, bacterial and parasite infections could quite easily be eradicated by simply chewing your food more thoroughly.
Once the food has travelled down the oesophagus it enters the stomach where its met by more enzymes and hydrochloric acid (HCl). The acid is manufactured by specific cells found in the stomach wall and its purpose is to breakdown proteins into amino acids for further absorption in the small intestine. It also kills any unfriendly pathogens like bad bacteria, germs, fungi and parasites. Interestingly, a large proportion of us nowadays are what we clinically term hypochloridic meaning we aren't producing enough HCl. This can cause a whole host of problems including not breaking down the food sufficiently for proper absorption but it also leaves us vulnerable to parasite, fungal or bacterial infection. These problems often lead to indigestion, heart burn and acid reflux whilst unwanted bad bacteria can create an imbalance of gut bacteria where the bad out numbers the good and this is clinically known as gut dysbiosis. Disturbingly, the most common recommendation for clients with these sorts of problems is to take antacids which simply further reduce the levels of acidity found in the stomach creating an environment in which bad bacteria and parasites thrive ! Often the better solution is to start taking some HCl tablets to actually increase acidity and help breakdown the food better and kill all the unfriendly visitors. A cheaper alternative is to drink a small glass of filtered water with a pinch of Celtic Sea Salt added, 15 minutes before sitting down to eat. Alcohol and refined sugars are absorbed through the stomach lining at this point in the process, whereas everything else continues its journey to the small intestine where it should be fully absorbed.
The small intestine (SI) is amazingly up to 7 metres long ! All the way along the tube that is the SI are special receptor sites that absorb particular foods and types of nutrients. Digestive enzymes from the pancreas and bile from the liver are released in to the SI to aid further breakdown and absorption of the foods. It's here that most fats and proteins are broken down to their smallest denominations (i.e. fatty acids and amino acids) before being absorbed. If food particles like proteins are still too large, then often these vital nutrients just simply won't be absorbed and thus the body will go looking for alternative sources of amino acids such as muscle and begin to catabolise your own physique. Once the receptors have properly digested the food its absorbed into the blood stream and sent via the portal vein to the liver for processing. From there it is distributed to the appropriate cells of your body via the main bloodstream to be converted into energy or to aid with the repair or regeneration of the body's cells. Any unwanted, indigestible or non-absorbed food particles are then sent to the colon or large intestine for final processing before leaving the body.
Large Intestine (Colon)
The colon is another 1.5 metres long and about three inches in diameter ! Its pretty much the last part of the digestive process and where elimination begins. One of the colons most important jobs is the manufacture of certain vitamins and the recycling of useful water for the body, particularly when dehydrated. In a healthy colon there are literally trillions of bacteria, some good and some bad. The optimal ratio is 85% good bacteria to 15% bad bacteria. Nowadays most people have exactly the opposite with 85% of the bacteria being considered 'unfriendly'. When we're very young the majority of the first friendly bacteria that populates the colon comes from the infants mother's milk and there's some very interesting studies that conclude that children who were not breast fed have a higher population of unfriendly bacteria and are more commonly the ones who experience digestive problems later in life. Thus another argument for the benefits of breast feeding. The friendly bacteria in the colon produce vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, A and K. They also produce a lactic acid by-product that helps with peristalsis which is the wave like contraction of the colon wall which pushes the food through the tube. The peristalsis movement prevents constipation and makes the environment unfavourable for unfriendly bacteria.
Consumption of poor quality, processed foods can create an alkaline environment in the colon that supports an overgrowth of unfriendly bacteria. Peristalsis is disrupted leading to constipation and an environment in which the bad guys thrive. This ultimately causes a backed up colon and an increase in toxicity levels within the body. When you are dehydrated (nowadays this is the majority of people), in an attempt to recycle any remaining water from your food your colon squeezes the faeces. However, this can also cause constipation and the re-absorption of any toxic fluids back into the bloodstream that your body initially intended to reject and eliminate.
Common Causes of Poor Digestion
In 2015, so many of the foods available in your local supermarket are heavily processed to the point that they could no longer be described as a 'whole food' and are accurately 'food-like products'. The receptors in the small intestine and the antibodies of the immune system hardly recognise them as real food. The 'food like products' cause a disruption in the normal digestive process due to a disturbing number of chemical additives, preservatives, colourings, stabilisers and emulsifiers. It's been reported that there are over 4000 chemicals used in food processing today, many of which are recently invented concoctions designed specifically to make a product appeal more to consumers or in order to make the product last longer on the shelf. Our immune system simply sees these obscure chemicals to be alien invaders and it will react by attempting to dilute and remove them as quickly as possible (diarrhoea or loose stools). If these nasty chemicals are not flushed from the body by the immune system response (i.e. if the immune system has been weakened by poor health, poor diet, excessive physiological load etc) then they can cause constipation leading to a toxic bowel. The toxic chemicals alone can cause a stress response within the body, activating the sympathetic nervous system and suppressing the parasympathetic and thus slowing process like digestion and elimination. The result is decreased peristalsis, which then as I mentioned earlier causes constipation and a toxic colon. In addition to these chemicals being highly toxic to the human body, they also have the potential to irritate the gastrointestinal tract. Most of you are probably thinking, "well it's okay because I don't eat any of these chemicals" but you're probably wrong. Many of the chemical additives we're talking about here do not legally need to be listed on the ingredients of the products we all buy. Often the package simply states that the product is artificially sweetened or artificially flavoured.
Needless to say, water is the most vital nutrient and without it, all our systems suffer, not just the digestive system. As I mentioned earlier, most of us nowadays don't drink enough and are consequently dehydrated. I highly recommend you drink your body weight (in kilos) multiplied by 0.033 litres per day ! Contrary to common belief, a dry mouth is actually one of the last signs that you may be dehydrated. Without enough water, you'll struggle to produce sufficient saliva which as I said earlier is vital in initiating the digestive process and beginning the breakdown of carbohydrates in particular. Once dehydrated, the body will go looking for any spare water from vital organs such as the nervous system, from the mucus in the stomach and from both the small and large intestines. When the moisture from the mucus lining in the stomach is removed the actual stomach wall is exposed to the highly acidic HCl leading to problems like ulcers. HCl is so acidic that if it was put on the skin it would burn through it ! So why doesn't it burn through the stomach wall I hear you ask. Well, it can if there isn't sufficient mucus, lining the wall, that relies on a sufficient amount of water. Further down the line dehydration can cause a lack of lubrication. This makes bowel movements hard to pass and results in constipation and high levels of toxic unwanted chemicals being reabsorbed into the body. Symptoms of toxicity include: fatigue, headaches, low back pain, asthma, abdominal pain, sciatica, food allergies, food intolerance and even skin problems.
Stress levels in modern society are at an all-time high. Besides the obvious mental-emotional stress caused by workload, relationships, family, negativity, depression and meeting deadlines etc that we all commonly associate with the word 'stress', I refer here to 'physiological load' in the many guises, shapes and forms we experience today. They are physical stresses (like poor posture, over or under-training, injuries etc), nutritional stress (caused by a poor diet, over or under-eating or eating the wrong proportions of nutrients for your body's very individual needs). Furthermore I refer to stress or physiological load placed upon the body and its systems from pollution, electromagnetic stress (from wi-fi, mobile phones, too much sun etc) chemicals (from synthetic drugs, pesticides and other food manufacturing and processing) and also from thermal stress (i.e. being too hot or too cold).Remember, all stress summates and when it becomes excessive your body goes into survival mode which severely disrupts digestion.
Stress disrupts digestion by activating the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) and de-activating the parasympathetic nervous system (which controls rest and digestion) which leads to a decrease in the digestive processes. The sympathetic nervous system's main priority is to ensure survival, preparing the body to fight or run for your life. Nowadays, the stress response is activated for a number of reasons that mostly come down to a primal need for safety and security:
Does this sound familiar:
You wake up late and still tired because your night's sleep was disrupted by waking up several times to go to the toilet or because you're anxious about something. So you rush or skip your breakfast, (but still check your emails) to be able to get to work on time and ensure the kids get off to school without forgetting anything. Your digestive system is already shutting down due to the immediate stress you faced and the lack of nutrients being absorbed properly. This often results in constipation. Having fought through the morning rush hour and rushing to your desk where you'll be sat for the next 8 hours or so, you drink several cups of coffee to 'keep you going' until lunch which again is rushed, includes processed pastries from the local bakery, fizzy sugary drinks or just completely skipped altogether. The stress levels escalate further. Finally after a long afternoon, trying to meet ambitious deadlines set by your boss and bouts of 'low energy' caused by insulin spikes and drops you leave work only to be faced by traffic jams all the way home. But you finally get home just in time for dinner which you sit down to eat in front of the news on the telly. The news just jacks up your stress levels a little more as you listen to all the crazy stories from around the world. Having gulped down your dinner because you were hungry from missing lunch and having had one or two glasses of wine and a cheeky chocolate bar 'to take the edge off' your day and treat yourself, you decide to watch a movie or your favourite soap. Eventually, having realised it's nearly midnight, you get up off the sofa feeling uncomfortably full yet still a bit hungry. Time for another night of disrupted sleep and so the process begins again... If this daily routine is repeated over several years, digestion becomes more and more progressively challenged.
The Effects of Poor Digestion
As discussed earlier, poor digestion can lead to a toxic bowel often resulting from dehydration and constipation or a diet packed full of poor quality, commercially farmed or produced (non-organic) processed foods such as pasteurised dairy, processed fruit juices, refined sugar and dehydrogenated (bad) fats. These foods are generally packed full of chemicals from pesticides, antibiotics and fertilisers used by the farmers or they contain chemicals in the form of preservatives, colourings, flavourings etc used in the processing by food manufacturers or the nutrients found in the foods are denatured by processes like pasteurisation which results in a lack of vital, naturally occurring enzymes that previously existed within the food that aid with their digestion or even the formation of new chemicals, simply unrecognisable by the human body. These chemicals can damage the lining of the gastrointestinal tract which can lead to leaky gut syndrome or simply contribute to a build up of these toxic chemicals in the colon and, if dehydrated, the body then re-absorbs them back into the bloodstream as described above. Other causes of toxicity other than diet includes tap water, caffeine, recreational and prescriptive drugs, alcohol, anxiety, gut dysbiosis and parasite or fungal infections.
Leaky Gut Syndrome
If we're stressed, dehydrated and/or regularly eat processed foods for breakfast (cereals), lunch (store-bought meal deal i.e. sandwich, packet of crisps, can of coke and a chocolate bar) and dinner (a ready-meal or pre-made sauces etc) and do so for an extended period of time, then the digestive system can become compromised or damaged and the immune system responds by creating inflammation, often causing common symptoms like abdominal bloating, gas and pain.
In the gut, this damage can create a situation known more commonly as leaky gut syndrome or gut hyper-permeability where the gaps in the microvilli of the intestines, the part of the digestive tract where the absorption of nutrients into the blood occurs, become too large and undigested food particles make it through the mucosal barrier, into the bloodstream, triggering more auto-immune response and further inflammation. This auto-immune response and the resulting inflammation causes further damage to the intestinal walls which allows more undigested food particles, the hidden parasites and bad bacteria to get through and consequently causes more inflammation and more damage ! And so the vicious circle continues...
Antigen Overload, food allergies and intolerances
The undigested particles that get through the mucosal wall become antigens and as a result our body begins to manufacture antibodies to attack and remove the different types of undigested proteins which manage to get into the bloodstream. Essentially the body creates an allergic response to any unrecognisable, undigested food particles or anything else that managed to get through for that matter. This means that the body has the potential to develop a whole host of food allergies which explains why some people with poor digestion or more commonly recognised food intolerances (e.g. gluten) also become sensitive to normally benign foods like strawberries, seafood, eggs and other yummy stuff that we tend to eat a lot of !
Any invading pathogens or antigens that have sneaked through the mucosal barrier wall are greeted in the bloodstream by the immune systems specifically manufactured antibodies. These antibodies are designed to attack and remove the specific invaders. They envelope the particle, swallowing it up and forming an immune complex, then carry them to the liver for it to process and eliminate. A war develops as the body attempts to contain and remove the offending foods. As more antigens get through, more antibodies and immune complexes are created and the collateral damage to the gut lining escalates, as does the level of inflammation. This eventually results in the liver becoming overly worked as it attempts to remove the high levels of pathogens and antigens in the blood. When the liver can no longer handle the workload, the resulting immune complexes start to circulate around the body, getting into joint tissues. As a result the immune system begins to attack its own joint tissues and a common resulting symptom to prolonged exposure to allergens is to experience joint pain. Basically, pain we assume is simply musculoskeletal can quite easily have been caused by unresolved symptoms of food intolerance that originated due to a digestive issue !
Once systemic, the antigens and consequential inflammation can begin to cause the immune system to attack all sorts of different cells in the body where these immune complexes have settled. Research has suggested that chronic inflammation may even underlie other systemic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and diabetes. More recently, scientists has even suggested a link between inflammation and a whole host of auto-immune diseases including dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
The body’s reaction to a leaky gut is to create inflammation which consequently damages the arterial walls in our cardiovascular system and could potentially explain a possible link to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and even heart disease and artherosclerosis. Whilst damage to other glands and systems of the human body which can be traced back to this inflammation can lead to a whole host of additional health issues. The research continues ....
Top Tips for Improved Digestion
- Stay hydrated, avoid dehydrated foods
- Drink a glass of filtered water with a pinch of celtic sea salt 15 minutes before eating
- Always prepare and/or cook your meals to get the digestive juices flowing in anticipation of nutrients
- Go organic ! Cut out the chemicals that are used to fertilise crops, remove pests and insects during the farming process.
- Only eat free-range, grass fed organic meat that is free from anti-biotics and steroids
- Avoid processed foods like sugar, cola or sports/energy drinks, pasteurised dairy and avoid all chemical additives like sweeteners, colourings and flavourings
- Avoid foods that you are allergic or intolerant to (gluten, soy ?).
- Try to include some fresh, raw foods at every meal such as salads
- Include enzyme rich foods like papaya or pineapple
- Try taking HCl tablets to improve acidity of the stomach if you frequently experience indigestion.
- Take pro-biotics, natural yoghurt or eat fermented foods like sauerkraut to increase the number of good bacteria in your gut
- Avoid stressful situations whilst eating - avoid the news.
- Don't read technical or stressful material whilst eating
- If you listen to music while eating, try listening to relaxing music
- Chew your food thoroughly until liquefied
- Avoid or at least minimise alcohol intake