Your digestive system will process 170,000 pounds of food over the course of your life. Your digestive system has more nerve endings than your brain. These amazing facts demonstrate how critical the digestive system is to human health. One of the most important functions of your digestive system is to physically and chemically break down food to allow for absorption further down the system. This region is known as the Upper GI Tract.
What would be the point to eating healthy food if your body cannot break it down properly and absorb the nutrients? We feel that the digestive system is one of the most important and most overlooked systems in your body. So let’s break the process down so that you have a better understanding of how this amazing sequence of events takes place.
Phase 1 – Food for Thought
Digestion starts in the brain. The smell and anticipation of food triggers the brain and digestive system to start releasing enzymes and gastric juices to prepare for the incoming meal. It is important that you are in a calm and stress free environment when you eat. Where you eat can be just as important as what you eat.
Phase 2 – Chew Your Food: Your stomach does not have teeth!
Mom was right, chewing your food is good for you, but she may not have told you why. Chewing your food is one of the most critical steps in digestion. The physical crushing of food in your mouth increases the surface area of your food and unlocks the nutrients in the food for further digestion in the stomach. Chewing your food also stimulates stomach secretions and mixes your saliva with your food to start the breakdown of carbohydrates. This critical step is not reproduced anywhere else and therefore is critical to the process. If you food is not properly chewed it will disrupt the entire process that follows, there is nothing that can replicate this step for you. Thankfully the number of times that you chew your food is 100% controlled by you!
Phase 3 – Stomach Secretions: Drop some acid
When food enters the stomach, the stomach starts to secrete hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes that work mainly on breaking down protein. The hydrochloric acid also sterilizes your food to prevent bugs that may be in your food from entering your system .
A common reason for heartburn is a lack of stomach acid secretion or dilution of enzymes. This results from not chewing your food, or drinking lots of water with your food. Food remains partially digested and starts to rot. This rotten food becomes acidic (lactic acid), which is acidic enough to burn your esophagus, but not acidic enough to digest your food properly. For this reason, in our office, we often prescribe digestive enzymes that actually acidify the stomach contents and almost magically the symptoms go away.
Phase 4 – Pancreatic Secretions : Last call
The next step once the food has been sterilized and acidified is to further breakdown that food via the release of pancreatic enzymes. The pancreatic enzymes also change the pH of the food to make it more alkaline in preparation for entry into the ileum. If pancreatic secretions are low the some of the symptoms include; bloating and gas 1 hour after eating, fatigue after eating, undigested food in the stool and even acne!
Phase 5 – Gallbladder Secretions: Fat chance
The final major step in digestion takes place once bile is released to emulsify fats. These fats are chemically broken down by bile so that they can be absorbed. The gallbladder does not make bile, it stores it. Bile is made from cholesterol and toxins that are neutralized by the liver. Bile not only digests fats but it further sterilizes the bowel and promotes regularity.
The physical and chemical breakdown of food is critical to proper digestion and absorption. The problem with undigested food is that can impact the gut terrain and inflame it. This process can lead to intestinal permeability (article coming soon). This is why a lot of food sensitivities develop. This immune response can also increase inflammation and raise blood sugars, causing a system-wide reaction.
So what can you do to help with proper digestion?
- Chew food thoroughly (especially vegetables)
- Drink less than 8 oz. of fluid with meals
- Eat in a relaxing environment
- Eat fresh fiber first – a salad is a good option