The Importance of Good Digestion
Most of us ignore our digestive system unless there’s a problem. For whatever reason, we rarely consider the role it plays in our overall health. But if it isn’t functioning the way it should be, life can be miserable.
People with poor digestive health might struggle with their weight, experience irregularity, nausea, bloating, constipation, stomach pain, diarrhea, heartburn, or gas on a routine basis. Poor digestive health also can prevent people from sleeping, working, exercising, or socializing with friends. If you have good digestive health, you should be close to a normal weight and go days without experiencing symptoms like heartburn, gas, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, or stomach pain.
Believe it or not, the entire foundation of your health lies in proper digestive function. All other health factors can be undermined if you don't digest and absorb nutrients well. Assimilation of vitamins, minerals, proteins and essential fatty acids from the foods you eat and the supplements you take is required for optimum health. If you are struggling with any health issues, remember that any therapeutic program, including vitamins, herbal supplement, and medications you are taking will be of limited value without good digestive function.
Digestion is actually a complex combination of biological interactions and chemical reactions taking place at every stop along the extensive digestive tract, which is generally split into two halves -- the upper gastrointestinal tract (mouth, esophagus, stomach, duodenum) and the lower gastrointestinal track (small intestine, large intestine). Another very critical piece of information that medical researchers are just beginning to understand is that your gastrointestinal tract is also home to the largest part of your body's immune system. It protects you against foreign invaders by producing acids, and houses colonies of beneficial bacteria that act as a defensive army fighting to protect you from pathogens that find their way inside your body. For those of you suffering from food allergies, leaky gut, candida overgrowth, as well as rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue and a host of other autoimmune issues, the root of the issue is actually a digestive system that is no longer functioning as it should.
Once you select something to eat, your mouth goes to work, using your tongue and teeth to turn large pieces into smaller pieces (mastication) and using enzymes from the salivary glands to begin chemically breaking down food molecules into a size your body can absorb. This is why nutrition experts are always advising you to eat slowly, and chew your food thoroughly, at least 20 chews per bite, because your digestion actually begins in your mouth. There's a reason baby food is mashed into mush: they have no teeth to break the food down themselves into smaller molecules. And yes, taking your time when eating and chewing your food properly has a number of beneficial side effects. If you often find your stomach feels like a big knot after you've eaten, that is because you're probably swallowing your food whole! In our hurried modern lifestyle, many of us have forgotten that our bodies actually REQUIRE us to eat in a calm, unhurried setting, really taking time to both enjoy our food and allow our digestive system to do its job.
The Magic of Digestion
By the magic of digestion, when you eat an apple it becomes a part of your body. And whether the apple is hot or cold, acidic or basic, sugary or bitter, the body still has to transform the qualities of the apple into the qualities of a human being. When the apple has been properly transformed, the organs are protected. The most profound way we interact with the environment is by eating it. Food choices play a central role in maintaining health. The body maintains balance by protecting itself from change. Medically, balance is called homeostasis. For example, the body keeps our temperature constant at 98.6 degrees. In contrast, the environment is always changing. These changes threaten to knock the body off balance. Disease comes when we are unable to process change.
Our ability to digest change is our ability to heal. Digestion is healing because digestion maintains balance. Ayurveda, which has been practiced in India for at least 5,000 years and is considered by many scholars to be the oldest healing science in the world, prevents and treats illness by maintaining balance in the body1. The Ayurvedic model of digestion, unlike that of Western medicine, reaches far beyond the mere digestion of food. It also encompasses digestion of chemicals, hormones, and all physiological changes. Perhaps a better word for digestion in Ayurveda is 'processing'. In fact, everything that happens to us must be processed. Digestion includes, for example, 'digesting' a cold temperature back to 98.6 degrees, information coming through the five senses, trauma, and any residual emotions.
Here are some basic facts about digestion from the Ayurvedic perspective:
1. Digestion is healing.
2. Digestion takes work.
3. The qualities of the food we eat either create balance or imbalance in our bodies.
4. Gas is a sign of weak digestion.
5. We are what we eat and don't excrete.
Guard Your Digestion
Digestion of food consumes up to 60% of our daily metabolism. Digestion takes work. Some foods are more difficult to digest than others, and as individuals, some of us have stronger digestive systems than others. Whenever the body is weakened by disease or suffering from indigestion, Ayurveda recommends foods that are easy to digest for your individual constitution.
Signs of Indigestion
Signs of food indigestion include gas, bloating, burping, acid reflux, constipation, and feeling tired after eating. Other signs include body odor, bad breath and a thick coating on the tongue. Gas is generally caused by fermentation of food. Food ferments when it sits in the gut too long. In the process of rotting, our food bacteria produce tiny bubbles that collect together and create gas. The presence of gas generally indicates weak digestion. If digestion is healing, then what and how much you excrete is the measure of health. Many people flush the evidence without inspection. A healthy poop is the shape, size and consistency of a ripe banana. Healthy poop is brown in color. Rank or offensive, odorous poop is unhealthy. Healthy elimination includes 1-2 bowel movements a day. We are what we eat and don't excrete. Ayurveda pays close attention to all elimination channels of the body including feces, urine, sweat and breath.
Overall Health Impact
If you have poor digestive health, you might experience it in ways you never imagined. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 35 percent of cancer deaths result from dietary risk factors. Poor diet and digestive health may be related to: Bad breath, Heart disease and high blood pressure, Reflux esophagitis (GERD), Crohn’s Disease, Arthritis, Osteoporosis, Ulcerative colitis, Psoriasis and eczema, Chronic fatigue syndrome, and Asthma.2 How common are digestive troubles? During any particular day, almost everyone has gastrointestinal symptoms of some kind. Nearly half (46 percent) of Americans say digestive problems affect their day-to-day lives.
The Effect of Foods on The Digestive System
But the first major problem with digestion starts with WHAT you choose to put in your mouth! In our modern world, inexpensive processed foods, often loaded with sweeteners, artificial colors, artificial flavors, artificial preservatives, cheaply processed unhealthy fats and artificial colors are designed to be appealing to all of your senses, including your taste buds, but are ruining our digestive systems and our health. Through the process of health coaching, I assist my clients in learning what foods are processed and refined, and how to replace them with delicious and nourishing whole foods that we are designed to eat. But why are whole foods good for us?
Whole or unrefined foods, specifically grains, beans, fruits and vegetables, are composed of both soluble and insoluble fiber. That fiber not only acts like a broom in cleaning out our digestive system of wastes and toxins, but contain the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients of the plant, exactly what we need to maintain our health. Whole foods also contain varying amounts of water that our body needs for proper digestion and elimination. Whole foods include traditionally fermented foods that our ancestor ate for centuries, such as sauerkraut, kim chi, kumbucha, yogurt and kefir. Naturally fermented foods help to repopulate our bodies with the good bacteria that in our modern world of antibiotics and dead foods we desperately need for proper digestion, absorption, and elimination, as well as proper immune function. Making your own fermented foods is not only easy to do, but very inexpensive, and eliminate the need to buy costly probiotics of questionable viability.
Once you remove processed, refined and toxic foods from your diet, you'll soon be able to notice which foods make you feel good. Digestive issues, as well as immune conditions, begin to correct themselves as healthy foods allow the body to heal and function properly. As your diet improves you'll also find your tongue craving healthy foods more reliably, making the process quicker. Our tastes do naturally change with the season, our age, and where we live to adapt to the changing needs of our bodies, but with the right information and with paying attention to our digestive systems, we can learn what foods we are able to digest and absorb, leading to not just a healthy digestive system, but stellar overall health and vitality.
1. University of Maryland Medical Center, http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/ayurveda-000348.htm#ixzz2969YYClu. A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org).
2. Importance of Healthy Digestion by Angie Best-Boss with David Edelberg, M.D.