(NewsTarget) Digestion is a key aspect of ongoing health: the mucous membrane from the inside of your mouth all the way down to the rectum, is where humans "interface" with the external environment. Our guts evolve slowly, and in the past 50 years we have been subjected to an unprecedented access to junk food and fast food, mostly horrendous chemical concoctions passing as nutrition.
Besides choosing foods carefully, ideally grown locally and in season, ideally very similar to the condition in which it was harvested, gathered or hunted, we can greatly improve the bio-availability of the nutrition from our food by improving the mechanics of digestion. First, and I know you've heard this before, but it is so important that it bears repeating: chew, chew, chew. This means both slowly and thoroughly.
To be totally graphic about it, you want anything you swallow to be a soupy consistency. Especially meat.
For starters, digestion starts in the mouth. There are thousands of tiny neuro-receptors in the mouth that send messages to the brain about what is about to come down the pike. These messages "prep" the entire digestive system to gear up for the meal or snack that's on the way. Fatty foods will trigger the liver to produce extra bile, and cause the gallbladder to contract. The gallbladder is a handy little sack that hangs just under the liver, collecting an extra repository of bile in case you have a Mac-attack.
Bile is extremely potent stuff (so precious to the body that 95% is recycled -- the other 5% is responsible for the wonderful deep brown color of a healthy poop. Excuse me, I mean bowel movement). Bile is the main agent for digesting fat. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Back to the mouth.
Unlike cows, birds and certain lizards, we mere humans do not have small sharp objects in our stomachs to help pulverize food into smaller morsels. We have those small sharp objects in our mouths. You got it -- they are called teeth. Please use your teeth to grind and pulverize every mouthful of food. Then, you mix the thoroughly pulverized food with as much saliva as you can muster without drooling.
Drooling is a waste of saliva, so please recognize that most circumstances don't call for drooling. You want that saliva, which is loaded with amylase, the starch-digesting enzyme, to head down the esophagus and into the stomach where phase 2 of good digestion occurs.
Second, try to avoid antacids, and this includes Tums, Rolaids, the little purple pill and countless other varieties thereof. You absolutely and desperately need your stomach acid. There's a handy book on the subject by Jonathan Wright MD (You Need Your Stomach Acid). Stomach acid serves three critical functions. It sterilizes food, it breaks down protein into amino acids which can then be absorbed into the blood stream, and it provokes the pancreas to dump "neutralizing" bicarbonate of soda into the upper small intestine to allow the absorption of nutrients into the blood stream.
Stomach acid is very caustic -- a pH of about 2, optimally, which kicks in right after swallowing. The stomach is designed to handle this level of acid. If you suffer from heartburn, you need to repair the sphincter between the end of the esophagus and the stomach. If you have gastric ulcers, you need to heal the lining of the stomach so that it can again accommodate the acid levels required for proper digestion.
Folks chronically popping antacids eventually impair their digestion, which leads to poor nutrient absorption, which ultimately leads to malnutrition including protein, mineral and vitamin deficiencies -- despite plenty of calories.
Third, please don't drink while eating. This goes along with rule # 2, above. Fluids will dilute your stomach acid and all the digestive enzymes (amylase for starch in the saliva, proteases for protein from the pancreas and lipase for fats in the bile).
The best time to drink, and pure water is definitely the best drink available, is first thing in the morning, during or around work-outs, and between meals. Sure, you can have a sip or two with meals to lubricate your swallowing. But keep the fluids with food down to a minimum.
Fourth, try to eat sitting down and in a relaxed environment. Please don't watch the news or have a heavy conversation during mealtime.
Try to establish a "mealtime" pattern for yourself. Try not to eat within 2 hours of going to bed (4 is better). Make sure to "fast" for 12 hours daily. Give your digestive system a rest. It is enormously "expensive" to digest food, especially protein. That's why people usually lose weight on high protein diets. It takes almost all the calories in the meat to digest that meat. Extra digestion, over a lifetime, will wear you out sooner. To date, the only proven method of life extension remains calorie restriction.
This doesn't mean Draconian self-denial. But it does mean no pigging out, and, as a general rule, stopping before you feel "full." If you feel peckish between meals, try drinking water before reaching for a snack. If you are hypoglycemic, ignore that advice. Some people truly need to eat smaller, more frequent meals. You will need to determine for yourself whether "grazing" works better than a mealtime scheme.
Either way, keep in mind that digestion is a parasympathetic function. You need to be calm and relaxed for the digestive juices to kick in optimally.
Fifth, strive to poop at least once a day. Excuse me; evacuate a large, easy-to-pass, dark brown, slightly fluffy, bowel movement -- optimally three times daily but most of us can't find the time for that kind of enjoyment! By fluffy I mean somewhat floating. If you have a "sinker" -- just hits the bottom of the porcelain pronto -- then it (the poop) has been in there too long, compacting and getting altogether too dense. My favorite poop fluffers include freshly ground flax seeds (1-3 tablespoons of the stuff in water or juice in the AM), or celery, or the good old apple a day. If you prefer to have sticky, foul-smelling bowel movements, then make sure to include plenty of refined carbohydrates (including candy bars) into your diet.
About the author... Dr Emily Kane is a practising naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist.