“All disease begins in the gut.” ~Hippocrates
Two thousand years ago, this famous Greek physician, our “father of medicine,” made this statement. The evidence of its profoundness has only grown. This is because every cell that makes up every tissue, that makes up every organ, depends on the body’s digestive system to provide the nutrients it needs to function. Even when an individual eats a nutrient-rich diet, if his digestive system has been compromised, he will not be able to utilize those nutrients. Therefore, the other systems of the body which depend upon those nutrients will lend toward disease.
Therefore, I start our discussion on the “Foundations of Health” with Digestion. I want to give you a “big picture” principle of how digestion works, and then equip you with 2 action steps you can take to improve your digestion.
Digestion is a process which takes place north to south. Digestion starts in the brain with the sight and smell of food, releasing salivary enzymes in the mouth. The process continues south through the esophagus, into the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. Accessory organs like the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas play important roles. If dysfunction occurs in a northern organ, such as the brain (pituitary) or mouth, it can impair the function of southern organs.
Out of this complex cascade, here are the 2 functions (with respective action steps) I want to highlight:
1) Digestion occurs in a relaxed state (parasympathetic). If you are stressed, the organs of digestion have a difficult time signaling each other when to participate.
2) The stomach needs to be very acidic (1.5-3.0 pH) to sanitize and breakdown food, preparing it for entry into the small intestine. Stress and processed foods, particularly processed carbohydrates (refined flours, sugar, etc.) reduce our body’s ability to produce sufficient stomach acid. Thus, proteins putrefy, carbohydrates ferment, and fats become rancid in our gut. AND, ill-governed bacteria and parasites thrive and disrupt the balance of healthy microbes.
Therefore, your two action-steps revolve around reducing stress. First, even if you can’t change external stress bombarding you, for the sake of your digestion, slow down and relax when you eat! By taking several deep breaths before a meal, you transition your body from a sympathetic (stressed) state to a parasympathetic state. Also, being thankful does the same thing chemically. (We don’t have to fake our way to happiness, but rather choose to focus on genuine blessings in our life. If there are ongoing emotional stressors, getting to the root of those are also necessary for health.) Second, reduce/eliminate dietary stress. When we eat processed foods, stripped of nutrients and needed enzymes, and replace them with chemicals and preservatives, we directly assault our stomach’s vital role of acid production.
May these steps not only improve your digestion, but increase your enjoyment of the foods with which you nourish your body!