Digestion starts before you put that first mouthful of food in your mouth. It begins when you’re preparing your food, smelling the pleasant aromas, and salivating as you imagine what it will taste like. In fact, digestion happens in phases.
Why is digestion important?
You need to eat to live, but why is digestion so crucial to your overall health?
Digestion is essential to your overall health in several ways:
- Makes it possible to absorb nutrients from food
- Ensures the balance of good and bad bacteria
- Gives you energy
- Helps you build and repair tissues
- Promotes a healthy immune response
- Protects you from infections
It helps to understand how digestion works, the benefits of good digestion, and what to do when it isn’t going the way it should. Keep reading to find out why digestion is one of the best things going for your overall health. Then check out our companion article[CN1] (“6 Steps to Better Digestion”), which gives you tips you can start doing today to get your digestion on point.
Studies show that over 40% of people worldwide have functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs), with women reporting greater prevalence than men. FGIDs are disorders that have ongoing or recurring GI symptoms without an organic explanation for the symptoms. Examples are irritable bowel syndrome, functional dyspepsia (which means indigestion), or functional constipation. These gastrointestinal disorders may be caused by dysfunction of the gut-brain interaction, microbial imbalance, changes to the mucosal immune system in the gut, problems with motility, or hypersensitivity to pain. They’re not caused by structural problems or biochemical problems, which means that diagnostic tests like x-rays, CT scans, and blood tests often don’t detect FGIDs.
If you suffer from one of these disorders, it will definitely affect your quality of life, and not in a good way. An issue in your gastrointestinal tract is telling you that there is a problem and it could put you at risk of other chronic diseases. Thanks to functional medicine, there are many tools to help you and your practitioner get to the root of your diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, heartburn, or other digestive symptoms.
Beyond its role in nutrition and microbial balance, digestion is critical for a healthy gut. It influences elimination and detoxification, a strong intestinal barrier, and the immune system. In this article we will explain why good digestion is the key to your overall health and how to optimize your digestion so that you can get rid of constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, and even heartburn.
What Happens During Digestion?
The first step of digestion begins before you put food in your mouth. Your body feels hungry, you see and smell food, and your mouth begins to release saliva. Saliva helps lubricate your food and releases enzymes to start breaking down your food. Digestion happens with physical and chemical processes. When you chew, you are digesting your food. As the food bolus, so it’s called, is swallowed, the esophagus and stomach further twist, turn, squeeze, and mush up your food.
In the stomach, hydrochloric acid makes the pH of your stomach more acidic than vinegar. Pepsin in the stomach breaks down protein and foods. As the stomach works on the food you ate, churning and destroying it, the partially digested food is called “chyme.” Muscles in the gastrointestinal tract squeeze the chyme, moving it along its path for digestion and absorption. Eventually, the waste (bacteria and indigestible fiber) is eliminated, or pooped out. We will talk about elimination later.
The finishing touches of digestion are completed in your small intestine. Enzymes from the pancreas and bile acids from the gall bladder help break down your food and emulsify fats. Pancreatic enzymes are some of the most important enzymes. Their role is to break down sugars, fats, and starches. Bile acids from the gall bladder help digest and absorb fats. This is the chemical part of digestion that works together with the physical part to break down food into its smallest parts. It is not recognizable anymore. What was previously food, is now in the small intestine amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and glucose.
That’s when absorption kicks in. Your small intestine is perfectly suited to absorb all of that simple nutrition to help your body and cells perform at their best. The inside of the small intestine is like a shag carpet. Every square inch of surface area (something like the square footage of a tennis court) is designed to absorb the nutrients that have been chewed up and broken down. Everything you have eaten is waiting on this moment to get into your bloodstream and arrive at your organs, tissues, and cells.
So, you can see that digestion and absorption are critical for giving your body all of the nutrition it needs. One misstep in this process means that food won’t get broken down and that nutrients won’t get into your blood and tissues. Poor dietary habits, stress, chronic illness, gut dysbiosis, and medications can also shut down digestion and absorption. That can cause fatigue, poor wound healing, poor growth, weakness, low muscle mass, skin disorders, poor memory, bacterial overgrowth, and more.
If your digestive process is faulty, large food molecules won’t get broken down like they are supposed to. These undigested food molecules can get into your bloodstream where they don’t belong. They can trigger the immune system and eventually lead to autoimmune diseases. Without healthy digestion, harmful pathogens can set up shop in the gut and cause the immune system to malfunction.
The Vagus Nerve and Digestion
The vagus nerve is a master puppeteer when it comes to healthy digestion. It is the longest cranial nerve connecting your brain to your internal organs, such as your heart, lungs, gut, liver, and pancreas. It is considered the body’s communication superhighway; it carries information between the brain and the internal organs and controls how the body acts during rest and relaxation. The vagus nerve is a major player when digesting your food. It is involved in the function of these organs:
- Intestines (small and large) – stimulates muscles in the intestines to help food and waste move through the digestive tract and serve as a communication pathway
- Liver – bile production, glucose production, and toxin detoxification
- Pancreas – produces digestive enzymes and balances blood sugar
- Stomach – produces stomach acid and churns food in the stomach
When the vagus nerve is weak, communication between the brain and digestive organs breaks down. In “6 Steps to Better Digestion” we tell you how to improve digestion by optimizing your vagus nerve tone[CN2] .
Why is Digestion Important for Gut Health?
The gastrointestinal tract is in charge of four fundamental processes that keep you healthy, known as the four pillars of GI health. They include digestion, elimination, microbiota, and gut integrity (or a healthy gut lining). If these processes are in place, you will have good gut function, a strong immune system, and you will resist infections and inflammation. Notice which process heads off the lineup? Digestion! This critical step must happen for the symphony of events to play out properly and support optimum gut health.
Elimination and detoxification
After digestion, comes elimination and detoxification, a collaborative effort of your liver and gastrointestinal system. After all of the nutrients are absorbed in your small intestine, any fiber that couldn’t be digested moves into the colon, or large intestine. This is where the bulk of your gut bacteria live and where your body takes back any of the water it needs before elimination. This is the end of the line, anything that wasn’t digested and gut bacteria (almost 50% of content) are eliminated as feces.
Meanwhile, the liver is working on everything that was absorbed from your food in the small intestine. Your liver is your body’s primary detoxification organ, performs 500 chemical functions in your body, and stores vitamins, hormones, cholesterol, minerals, and sugars. It works closely with your gastrointestinal tract. In fact, everything that was absorbed into the bloodstream from the gut passes through the liver first.
The toxins that are removed by your liver include:
- Environmental toxins such as pollution
- Internal toxins, such as metabolic byproducts and harmful hormones
- Lifestyle toxins – like skincare and cosmetics
Your liver filters these toxins and eliminates them from your body through your urine or stool. If toxins are not filtered and eliminated from your body correctly, it can lead to mental fog, weight gain, mood changes, and hormonal imbalances. Toxins have also been linked to autoimmunity. According to Dr. Joseph Pizzorno, N.D. of the Institute for Functional Medicine, “The research is very clear—huge, huge, strong correlations exist between toxin load and most of your autoimmune diseases.”
Your digestive system comes with its protective mechanisms, including an intestinal firewall. Your intestinal epithelial barrier helps transport nutrients, water, and waste while protecting the intestinal microbiota and immune system. It has been shown that some factors, including dietary changes, some antibiotic and alcohol use, and environmental/genetic factors, can alter your microbiota and increase intestinal permeability – in other words, how easily substances can pass through the wall in your intestines. Leaky gut occurs when bacteria and toxins pass from the gut into the bloodstream. Leaky gut may cause and perpetuate Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, because it can trigger an abnormal immune response at the mucosal barrier and feed into a chronic vicious cycle of intestinal inflammation.
Your gut contains microbes that make up the microbiota ecosystem or microbiome of your gastrointestinal system. Your microbiome includes bacteria (good and “bad”), fungi, and viruses, which, when balanced, improve gut health and overall well-being. The gut microbiota helps us in a few ways:
- Prevent the growth of harmful bacteria
- Train the immune system
- Act as an anti-inflammatory
- Produce beneficial byproducts, such as short chain fatty acids
In most healthy people, the gut microbiome is balanced; however, when the microbiome isn’t balanced something called gut dysbiosis can result. People who aren’t digesting their food properly are more likely to develop bacterial or fungal dysbiosis in the gut. Poor digestion means there is more food than microbes can ferment. Gut dysbiosis can contribute to constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), obesity, diabetes (type 1 and 2), celiac disease, and depression.
How to Improve Your Digestion
Convinced that digestion is absolutely vital to your gut health and resistance to disease? Great! Now let’s move on to what you can do to improve your digestion. In the second part of this blog, we will talk about the six steps you can take to boost your digestive health.
Digestive problems can be painful, frustrating, and embarrassing. Starting a discussion with your functional medicine doctor and making even a few small changes can make a huge difference in your digestive health. We can help you discover the root cause of symptoms and improve your digestion with testing, lifestyle, and diet changes. With healthy digestion, you will notice bathroom habits become more regular, and bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea will fade away. It can even improve your joint health and mood.