All health begins in the gut. How is your digestive function? Yesterday my blog post centered on 3 key aspects of health that are essential to improve upon: Hydration, Digestion/Assimilation and Elimination.
Digestion and assimilation is measured by how capable your body is able to properly digest and assimilate the foods and nutrients you put into your body. There are many things that hamper good digestion, such as chronic infections, bile acid, enzyme and hydrochloric acid (HCL) deficiencies. Supplementing with digestive support can be very necessary for some people who have poor digestive functions.
It has been my experience that many elderly people have digestive insufficiencies. This can be a primary cause of anemia and chronic infections.
The Role of Digestive Enzymes
Digestion begins in the mouth with chewing your food. When you chew, saliva contains the carbohydrate enzyme amylase which initiates the digestive process. Neural lingual signals are sent to the stomach that food is about to enter. When food enters into the stomach, it can sit for upto an hour before the stomach begins producing hydrochloric acid.
Hydrochloric acid (HCL) is not for digesting food. HCL’s primary functions are to sterilize food and to trigger the stomach to produce pepsin. Pepsin is a protein digesting enzyme whose role is to break down protein into peptides.
For the first 30-60 minutes after eating, salivary enzymes and any plant enzymes present can hydrolyze (break down into various components) proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Some studies indicate that as many as 40-85% of starches can be digested before HCL production is initiated. This hydrolysis takes place when the stomach’s ph is not very acidic. When the stomach’s ph lowers to about 3.0 after HCL secretion, pepsin continues to work. When the partially digested food arrives in the pylorus (bottom part of the stomach), the contents move into the duodenum (beginning of the small intestine). Two hormones get released (cholecystokokinin and secretin) and trigger the pancreas to release enzymes as well as bicarbonate needed for the remainder of the digestive processes.
After HCL production, the chyme (partially digested food on route to small intestine) is very acidic, and needs to be alkalized before entering the small intestine.
What is interesting and very important is that these 2 hormones (cholecystokokinin and secretin) tell the pancreas exactly how much enzymes and bicarbonate is needed. If there is adequate hydrolysis and pre-digestion which took place before HCL production, the amount of enzymes and bicarbonate needed to be produced by the pancreas is less. If the food consumed was lacking enzymes (because it was devoid of enzymes entering the stomach or if hydrolysis was minimal due to inadequate presence of digestive enzymes) the pancreas must work harder to produce more enzymes and to produce more bicarbonate. Obviously you see the potential problems that can arise in the digestive tract.
Once protein gets sufficiently broken down into smaller components, the amino acids enter the liver through the portal vein. If digestion is impaired and protein linkages are too large, the immune system is activated to attack these proteins. When fats enter into the duodenum, they are further emulsified by bile. Short and medium chained fatty acids (like the fats found in coconut oil and palm oils) are absorbed right into the intestinal wall. Long chained triglycerides (like polyunsaturated omega 3 and 6) must be accompanied with chylomicrons into the lacteals (lympahtic vessels) before entering the blood.
The process of carbohydrate digestion is more involved than the other two macro-nutrients. Starches and carbohydrates enter into the small intestine partially digested. The fibrous hull is indigestible as the body does not make the cellulase enzyme. The last stage of carbohydrate digestion takes place in the middle portion of the small intestine. The micro villi (small finger-like hairs in the small intestine) secrete the enzymes lactase, maltase and sucrase. Some individuals apparently do not produce sufficient amounts of lactase to digest lactose. If the micro villi are damaged, or are unable to produce sufficient enzymes to complete the digestion of carbohydrates, many different problems can take place.
If a person has an intolerance to gluten, gliadin, or a food sensitivity/allergy, then an immune response can take place in the small intestine, over time causing degradation to the digestive functions. Mal digestion will result in diminished gut function, chronic constipation, chronic inflammation, decreased intestinal flora and can degrade and derail normal immune processes.
The breakdown of the intestinal mucosal barrier can become a virulent process where the immune system is called to perform special tasks of repairing damaged cells. Over time, villous atrophy results in a total shutting down of gut function and is the precursor to autoimmune diseases such as RA and Crohn’s Disease.
“Leaky gut” or intestinal permeability is now considered to be a primary cause of numerous, chronic health conditions.
Saving Your Gut Means Improving Digestive Functions
I recommend numerous laboratory tests to identify the impairment of digestive functions, thereby creating strategies for improving function. The key point to remember is that good digestion is a primary key to good health. A lot can be done to take the work load off of the pancreas and liver.
If you eat cooked food you should take digestive enzymes that have a wide ph range. This is especially true if you have any degree of digestive distress. Plant-based digestive enzymes have a ph range usually between 3.0-9.0. This is ideal because plant-based enzymes (including raw vegetables) can work at many different stages of digestion, including the pre-HCL state in the stomach and even during HCL production. Animal based pancreatin only work in the small intestine, so they don’t spare your stomach’s function, and they won’t spare your pancreas’ release of enzymes or bicarbonate. I do advocate pancreatic enzymes in some circumstances however.
Because you want digestion to be maximized during the hydrolysis phase, prior to HCL production, it is important to take digestive enzymes at the beginning of your meal.HCL should be taken at the end of your meal so that HCL doesn’t interfere with hydrolysis and pre-digestion. If you have H-Pylori, DO NOT take HCL until you eradicate the infection.
Probiotics should be taken on an empty stomach so that the HCL of the stomach doesn’t interfere or destroy the bacteria. If there are issues regarding gut permeability, intestinal dysbiosis, these protocols need to be carefully put together on an individual basis. In some cases, improving the function of the adrenals may be necessary as well.