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Digestion

What Is It?

You’ve heard the expression “You are what you eat”. Well, that’s not exactly accurate. In fact, you are what you digest and absorb. Sure, it’s true that what you put in your mouth is going to have an impact on your state of health. But it won’t do you much good if you’re eating a perfectly balanced diet, and not digesting and absorbing it properly.

If you want to get the most out of your body, make sure you’re not only eating a well-balanced diet, but that you’re also digesting and absorbing the foods that you eat.

The alimentary canal, from the mouth to the anus, is what naturopath Lindsey Duncan calls the “mother feeder”. Every cell and tissue in the body is dependent on our digestive system to feed them. The cells and tissues of the body can only function optimally if the digestive system is successfully breaking down and delivering nutrients in a form that will be properly assimilated into the body.

Risk Factors

When someone has a consultation at Rose Nutrition, one of the things we’re able to determine is just how well they are metabolizing their food. A computer determines the percent of food they are properly digesting, absorbing, assimilating and eliminating.

Perfect digestion is the ability to extract roughly 80% of the nutrients in our diet and deliver them to the cells in the body. Out of this potential 80%, we find that most people are digesting and absorbing only 50% of the nutrients in their food. In other words, the cells in their body are making due with only 50% of the potential nutrients they are consuming. The remaining 50% or more is turned into waste, which must be eliminated from the body. This metabolic inefficiency not only keeps a person in a chronic state of malnutrition, it puts a tremendous strain on the eliminative channels, which are designed to handle only a 20% load as waste. The eliminative organs simply can’t keep up with the amount of waste generated. As a result, a fair amount of this waste is reabsorbed into the body creating a toxic condition.

Fallout from poor digestion can include bloating, gas, stomach or intestinal discomfort, fatigue and sluggish elimination. If poor digestion has caused an imbalance in the flora living in the GI tract, a person could experience any one of a number of symptoms associated with an overgrowth of unfriendly bacteria including headaches, depression, aches and pains, allergies and PMS. The symptoms go on and on. And it can all boil down to poor digestion.

Dietary Considerations

Most people have no idea what happens to food after it disappears down their throat. So here is a step by step description of what happens when our bodies are digesting something.

  • Stage 1: Digestion begins in the mouth, not the stomach. Remember that the stomach has no teeth, so everything you eat must be chewed completely. Chewing thoroughly is critical to create enough surface area for stomach enzymes to act upon. The mouth also produces enzymes in the saliva that mix with the food and begin to digest carbohydrates.
  • Stage 2: There are actually two sections of the stomach where digestion takes place, the cardiac region also known as the food enzyme stomach and the pyloric region where active digestion takes place. In the enzyme stomach, food stays for up to 45 minutes where it is predigested. If we are eating live, uncooked foods, the enzymes in these foods will do a good amount of the digestion for us. Then the food moves into the lower pyloric region, where the body takes over and produces the necessary digestive juices to continue digestion in the stomach.
  • Stage 3: In the small intestine, bile, produced by the liver, emulsifies fats and pancreatic enzymes finish the job of digesting proteins and starches so they can be properly absorbed.

All of this seems pretty complicated but it is something our bodies will do automatically. When somebody’s digestion is off, it is often a function of poor eating habits. The most common behaviors associated with poor digestion include:

  • Not chewing thoroughly
  • Drinking too much liquids with meals
  • Eating late at night
  • Eating while stressed. The stomach can’t work if it is not relaxed.
  • Not paying attention to the meal. What is your intention when you sit down to a meal? If it is to read the paper, watch TV or drive the car you will not digest the food properly.
  • Improper food combining

Lifestyle Modifications

Improving your digestion requires that you understand a few fundamental keys. Let's start with the timing of meals. There are times of the day when it’s good to challenge our body with food and times when it’s not such a good idea. The energy in every organ and system of the body is controlled by circadian rhythms, cycles of energy that peak and ebb at certain times of the day. During consultations I draw my clients a picture of the body clock to help them understand the cycles of energy in the body.

  • Between 4am and noon, the body is focused on detoxification and elimination. We have digestive energy here, but it is best to conserve it for house cleaning.
  • From noon to 8pm our digestive energy is still high and the body has a its greatest need for the energy that food provides. This is the best time to challenge your digestive system with foods that will require a lot of digestive “fire”.
  • Historically, between 8pm and 4am we humans were at rest. Our bodies have been programmed over hundreds of thousands of years to take advantage of the inactivity associated with the dark hours to channel energy inward. This cycle of repair and maintenance directs nutrients into the tissues to help our body rebuild and repair itself. This night time cycle keeps us young and in good repair.

There are exceptions to every rule, but generally speaking, if a person eats in accordance with their body clock their digestion and their overall health will improve. This will vary from person to person. But here is a general shape of eating throughout the day that will improve digestive function for most people.

Breakfast needs to satisfy two criteria: It should be easy to digest and it should facilitate cleansing. I usually suggest fruits, fresh juices or protein shakes, especially when someone needs to stabilize their blood sugar in the morning. Heavy foods like bacon and eggs should be avoided.

Lunch is when we have lots of digestive energy. This is the time of the day to have your main meal. Because animal protein takes so much digestive energy it should be eaten here along with lots of non-starchy mixed vegetables.

Dinner comes at the time of day when our digestive strength is waning and the body is getting ready to repair itself. So dinner should be smaller than lunch and as early as possible. Lots of vegetables, 2/3 of the meal, plus starch – potatoes, whole grains, whole grain pastas, brown rice, etc. give you plenty of the right kind of fiber and minerals that the body needs to run right.

Of course, this is completely backwards of how most people eat. The average American eats an Egg McMuffin for breakfast, grabs a sandwich for lunch, or skips it altogether, then rewards themselves with a huge meal at 8:00 or 9:00 at night when they have very little digestive strength left.

Vegetables should pre-dominate at our lunches and dinners and yet most of us eat very few of them. The human digestive system resembles vegetarian animals far more than it does carnivores. Our teeth are primarily flat. Nature provided us no fangs to kill or rip the flesh off other animals. Our stomachs contain 1/10 the hydrochloric acid (required for protein metabolism) of true carnivores. And our long, meandering small intestine is designed to permit extraction of plant nutrients. It is ill suited to a diet high in animal protein. Our digestive system needs plenty of high water content, high fiber content foods to run right. We get that by eating plenty of vegetables and fruits.

Food combining, especially separating proteins and starches, is very important to improve digestive efficiency. Animal protein needs a very acid environment to be properly broken down into easily absorbed individual amino acids. Starches require an alkaline environment to digest properly. Acid and alkaline are opposite ends of the pH spectrum. In other words, animal protein and starchy carbohyrates require diametrically opposed environments for good digestion. When we eat proteins and starches together, hamburger on a bun, meat and potatoes, chicken or fish with rice, the body generates acid to digest the protein and alkaline juices to digest the starch. These competing digestive juices neutralize each other, and neither the proteins nor the starch get digested well. The resulting metabolic inefficiency is behind much of the fatigue, bloat and gas people feel after eating. It is also responsible for rampant weight gain, internal toxicity and stress to the immune system among the general population. Limiting animal protein intake to lunch and reserving starches for dinnertime solves much of this problem.

Most of us have become accustomed to the feeling of fullness that accompanies poor food combining. We have come to define satisfaction as that stuffed feeling associated with foods sitting in the stomach for two to three times longer than they should. But there is a lighter feeling associated with proper food combining that we need to get used to if we want to build stronger digestion and improve our health.

The vast majority of Americans are eating processed, refined and devitalized foods. These foods put a tremendous strain on our digestion because they contain no active enzymes. Our gastro-intestinal system was designed hundreds of thousands of years ago to process living food abundant in active enzymes. Live, enzyme-rich foods help the body by pre-digesting themselves in the upper stomach. When we eat cooked enzyme deficient foods, all the burden of digestion falls on the body. This is beyond the design of our digestive system. The pancreas is one of the hardest hit organs because it produces many of the enzymes digestion requires. I believe a weakened pancreas is behind a lot of the fatigue and cravings for sugar and starchy foods that is so rampant today.

Since every system in the body relies on enzymes, the #1 way of preserving our digestive strength and overall health is to eat plenty of raw foods. One of the questions I ask at my seminars is “What other animal on this planet cooks its food?” The answer, of course, is “none”. And no animals living in the wild suffer the kinds of degenerative diseases that we humans do. However, when they are fed cooked diets, they begin to suffer chronic degenerative conditions just like us. A 10-year animal study done by Dr. Francis Pottenger used 900 cats, half of which were given raw milk and raw meat, both high in enzymes. The other half were fed pasteurized milk and cooked meat. In the first generation of cats eating the cooked foods, degenerative diseases similar to humans began to appear. In the second and third generations, the cats developed bone deformities, hyperactivity and sterility. The cats eating raw foods had no such problems over the entire length of the experiment.

The average person eats 2000 to 2500 calories a day of which 200 of those calories are raw. This isn’t nearly enough. To improve your digestion, aside from trying to increase the percentage of raw foods, try adding foods that have an abundance of active enzymes – bananas, raw figs, raw dates, avocados, grapes, mangos, papaya, raw cereals, raw nuts and seeds. Fermented foods such as miso, tofu and tempeh also add extra enzymes and take a real load off the digestive system.

Avoid over-eating to preserve and build your digestive strength and add years to your life. Dr. Clive McKay at Cornell University found that when he halved the food intake of rats, their lifespan doubled. Another experiment at Brown University found that animals fed a sparse diet out-lived overfed animals by 40%.

Suggested Supplementation

Our bodies were designed to receive and process foods that have their enzymes intact. When cooked, dead food is eaten, the entire burden of digestion is placed on the body, which is forced to rob its own stores of enzymes to complete digestion of the food. The fewer enzymes in the food we eat, the more work our body has to do. This results in the production of excess free radicals during digestion. The more free radicals generated in our body, the faster we age.

Enzymes that are necessary for digestion should be supplied in our food. If they’re not, they must either be supplied by the body or supplemented. Supplementing digestive enzymes can take some of the burden off of the digestive system. There are a wide variety of products that include pancreatic enzymes, Betaine HcL and vegetable derived enzymes. Each product supports different aspects of the digestive process. So it is important to choose the appropriate product for your needs. A nutritionist can help determine which type is right for you.

 

The nutritional suggestions in this material are not offered to treat, mitigate or cure disease, and should not be used as a substitute for sound medical advice. This information is designed to be used in conjunction with the services of a trained, licensed healthcare practitioner.

 
     
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