The Road to Health is Paved with Good Intestines
When it is working well, most of us don’t spend much time thinking about our digestive tract. We put food in our mouth, we may chew it a little bit, we swallow, and then its gone. If all is well, we have a bowel movement or two a day and think nothing more of it. We might feel a little grumbling in our stomach if we are hungry or we feel a little unsettled if we eat too much or too fast, but otherwise we tend to take our digestive tracts for granted.
Our gastrointestinal tract is a remarkable system. It turns food into microscopic particles that can get absorbed into our blood stream and be used for energy, maintenance, growth, and repair. It has its own immune system. Ideally it keeps out things that are foreign and harmful and allows in things that are safe. It defends us from the bacteria, yeast, parasites, and viruses that are on everything that we put into our mouths.
However, it is not uncommon for our gastrointestinal function to be less than optimal. It is estimated that 42 million Americans suffer heartburn on a weekly basis and 45 million suffer from irritable bowel syndrome. We are bombarded with ads for pills that stop “evil” stomach acid and for yogurts and fiber supplements touted to promote regularity.
Why does one of our most basic processes so easily go awry?
To help you have a better understanding and appreciation for your digestive tract and how to keep it happy, over this series of blogs I am going to take you on a tour of digestion and your digestive tract. I will show you ways to keep it working well, or to get it back on track if necessary.
It’s All in Your Head
As we begin our tour of the digestive tract , you might think that we would begin with the mouth. However, setting up our gastrointestinal tract for optimal digestion starts before a bite of food ever enters our mouths. Even before the mouth, digestion really begins in the mind. The mind is an often overlooked digestive organ and in my experience at the route of many digestive issues.
The thought, smell, or sight of food will actually cause our digestive processes to begin. In response to the stimuli our salivary glands begin to produce more saliva, our stomachs begin secreting acid and enzymes and the entire digestive tract begins to experience a wave like motion called peristalsis.
In addition, the mental state that we are in when we eat can have a profound effect on our digestive function. For optimal digestion to take place we should ideally be in a relaxed state called a parasympathetic state. This is in contrast to a stressed or sympathetic state.
Throughout the day and in response to external and internal stimuli, we shift back and forth between these two states. The parasympathetic state is our relaxed state and is referred to as the rest and digest state. The blood flow is going to the digestive organs to process the food that we are taking and promote proper motility of the gastrointestinal tract.
Evolutionarily the sympathetic state is the acute stress response. You are confronted by a predator and you need to either run or fight. This requires our blood supply and energy to go to the brain and to our arms and legs. The response is meant to be short lived. You get away, kill the predator, or get killed.
In our modern lives we are not confronting many bears or lions, but instead our stressors come in the form of traffic, work deadlines, the economy, family problems, money issues, and the 24 hour news cycle. Unlike being attacked by a bear, these are not isolated events, but instead tend to be constant. Because of this, we tend to spend most of our time in this sympathetic state.
This effects our digestion because when we are in the sympathetic state blood flow is not preferentially going to our digestive tract and so it does not function as optimally.
Most of the time when we eat, we are not focusing on eating. We are not aware of what we are putting into our mouths, and we are not in a relaxed state. We are eating in the car, at our desks in front of the computer, while texting, while watching TV.
Before the food even enters into our mouths, we are setting ourselves up for impaired digestion. Taking time to actually focus on the food that you are eating and allowing yourself to be in a relaxed state when you eat will help to get things started on the right foot.
While it can be difficult to shut everything off and allow ourselves to be in a relaxed state when we eat, there are simple steps that you can take to get yourself into a parasympathetic state and get your digestive process started on the right foot.
- When you eat, eat! Before eating, turn off your computer and your television. Put away your book, your newspaper, or the project you have been working on.
- Your car is for driving and not for eating. Wait to eat until you arrive at your destination, or stop and take the time to eat before continuing on your way.
- To start your meal, stop and take 5 to 10 slow deep breaths. This will help to clear your mind of distractions and also puts the body into a relaxed state that allows digestion to occur more optimally.
- Take a moment to look at and smell your food before you begin eating. If the food isn’t pleasing to look at and doesn’t smell good, it may not be the best thing to be putting in to your body.
By starting your digestive process off on the right foot, you will be more likely to digest your food well and less likely to cause yourself uncomfortable symptoms such as heartburn and indigestion.
In the next blog, we will enter the mouth, doorway to our thirty foot long gastrointestinal tract and see why your mother was right when she told you to chew your food.