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Digestive & Liver Health

Digestive & Liver Health

Digestion is Complicated

Digestion is the orchestrated bodily processes of utilizing food for nourishment, growth, reproduction and health.

Digestion is about energy and nutrition. We gain access to energy and nutrients by eating a healthy diet of plants and animal products in our environment and breaking them down into smaller components.

First and foremost, food is necessary for survival, and a basic activity for daily living. But food is also an intricate part of our social interactions and pleasure.

It’s a complicated process, each aspect is dependent on another. When some aspect doesn’t work properly, many people experience difficulty.

The digestive or GI tract is the focal point for digesting food and absorbing nutrients…..but also has many other functions! The digestive system is interrelated to other bodily systems and core to our wellness.

  • The GI tract is a key part of our immunological system — it provides a first line of immune defense against foreign pathogens.
  • The “gut-brain axis” is a communication system  between the brain, GI tract, gut microflora and neurological system in the gut.
  • The gut interfaces with our circulatory and lymphatic systems. 
  • The digestive system, in particular the liver, is critical to detoxification.
  • The GI tract supports the natural anti-inflammatory processes.

A healthy varied whole foods unprocessed diet with lots of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, fish, chicken, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy and limited amounts of meat is by far the best way to support a healthy digestive system. If additional support is needed, there are also dietary supplements that can help support the digestive and elimination process.

If your digestive process is “off” you can feel miserable and even ill. Noticeable symptoms might include, a belly ache, bloating, gas, pain, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, acid reflux, diarrhea or constipation. Conversely, if your digestive process is working well, it will have a positive effect on your vitality, energy level, mood and quality of life.

Simply Stated, What’s the Basic Process of Digestion?

Once we ingest food, our bodies use both mechanical and chemical processes to break it down.

The mouth begins the process, with teeth chewing and making the food particles smaller and easier for the soon-to-be released enzymes, stomach acids and bile to break food down into simpler structures. (Of course the thought or sight or smell (brain and nervous system) of a delicious meal may get our salivary juices going before we even take a bite!)

In the stomach, there’s a churning process — the food mixes with released acid and enzymes to further break it down.  The muscles of the GI tract move the bolus of food along, absorbing nutrients, mostly in the small intestine. In the colon (large intestine), water gets resorbed and bacteria ferment undigested products and manufacture some nutrients. Finally undigested materials are eliminated from the body.

In their simple form (e.g. glucose, amino acids, triglycerides, minerals, vitamins, etc.) food components can be absorbed from the GI tract into the blood stream and lymphatic system.

The Liver — Essential Roles for Digestion, Nutrient Utilization, and Detoxification Supporting the Liver

After absorption through the wall of the small intestine, blood carries nutrients (and other things like toxins) to your liver before continuing on to other parts of your body.

  • The liver produces bile which helps to digest fats through emulsification and helps with absorption of vitamin K.
  • The liver makes protein, stores glucose, vitamin B12 and iron.
  • The liver processes carbohydrates, protein and fat (triglycerides) into glucose, the chemical form of energy that can be used by the body.
  • The liver synthesizes essential compounds like cholesterol, blood clotting factors, hormones.
  • The liver produces glutathione, the body’s master antioxidant.
  • The liver breaks down or modifies the chemical structure of toxic substances through processes like methylation, which “neutralizes” them and mitigates their harm to the rest of the body.
  • The liver limits toxic substances from getting into the bloodstream by speeding up their excretion in bile or urine (through conjugation) — whether they are alcohol, certain microbes, chemicals or drugs.
  • Sometimes the liver tries to protect the rest of your body by storing the toxins in the fatty part of liver cells, which can have negative effects if it builds up in excess.
  • The liver also clears dead red blood cells and is an important part of the maintenance of red blood cells.
  • The liver converts ammonia to urea, which is then excreted mostly through urine and small amounts through sweat.

Other Organs Essential for Digestion

The gallbladder helps with fat digestion by storing and releasing bile into the GI tract when needed.

The pancreas deserves a special mention. It is a glandular organ that is part of the digestive and endocrine systems. The pancreas produces pancreatic juices which include enzymes (that break down carbohydrates, proteins and fat) and secretes them into the small intestine.

The pancreas also produces critical hormones including insulin. Insulin is necessary for cells to uptake glucose from the blood stream. If a person cannot produce insulin or enough of it, or if the body’s cells are resistant to taking in insulin, he or she will develop diabetes.

 Five Key Things You Need for Digestive Wellness

  1. Proper and adequate GI secretions
    such as digestive enzymes (like amylase, lipase, protease, lactase, sucrase, maltase) and hydrochloric acid (stomach acid).
  2. Healthy lining of the GI tract
    including a gastric mucosa that is semi-permeable, defending against unwanted microbes and undesirable foreign substances, and able to absorb the nutrients you need.
  3. Healthy microbial balance in the gut
    that will also support the gut mucosa, the immune response and maintain a healthy intestinal pH.
  4. Healthy motility of the gut muscles
    so the body moves food along in the digestive tract and supports healthy elimination of unneeded food byproducts and toxins.
  5. Healthy liver function
    which is key to detoxification of harmful environmental substances, clearing dead or diseased cell matter, supporting fat digestion and producing of key compounds like hormones.


Aging — How It Can Alter Digestion and GI Health

As we get older, many bodily changes often occur that can affect digestion and nutrient absorption like:

GI secretions – With aging, it is common to produce less digestive enzymes and gastric acid

Lining of GI tract – With aging, the absorptive area of the intestinal mucosa is often reduced. This affects decreased nutrient absorption. The sensitivity of the mucosa to environmental and dietary stresses often increases

Microbial balance – With aging, there may be a compromised balance of the microbiome in small and large intestine

Gut motility – With aging, digestion often slows down; possible effects include increased constipation

Liver function – With aging, there is a decreased ability to metabolize many substances (including some prescription medications), less ability to resist stressors, slower liver repair and reduced production and flow of bile and increased chance of gallstone formation


Daily Stressors on Digestion and Detoxification

Besides aging, there are many potential stressors that can affect GI wellness, healthy digestion and normal detoxification.

Environmental and Toxins from the Food Supply – There are more and more environmental toxins in our environment that our bodies have to deal with… from household chemicals, car exhaust, building materials, plastics, manufacturing byproducts, pharmaceutical products we intentionally take and those in our water supply and chemicals that run off into our reservoirs. In addition, the pesticides used on fruits and vegetables, food additives in processed foods and chemicals in packaging, as well as alcoholic beverages, give our livers more work to do.

Food Intolerances and Food Allergies – When we eat foods we are intolerant to (sensitive), or foods we are allergic to, the lining of the gut mucosa can get inflamed and its integrity compromised.  This may allow increased absorption of unwanted foreign molecules or microbes and decrease the ability to absorb the nutrients we want. To manage food sensitivities people often those avoid foods which trigger GI distress. If a lot of foods are eliminated, this can lead to more restrictive diets and limit the nutrients taken in through foods. It can also create stressful social situations and may limit feeling comfortable going out to eat.

Highly Processed, “White and Brown” Diet — The typical Western diet, with few fruits and vegetables, little fiber, lots of sugar or high fructose corn syrup, dominant in animal products (fed on corn) and few whole unprocessed foods can place a stress on the digestive and elimination systems, which gets compounded over time. The nutrients and components like antioxidants from these foods may be inadequate, lack of dietary fiber may be constipating, and mix of gut bacteria may be less than ideal. In fact, a highly processed, high sugar and high carbohydrate diet feeds unwanted microbes such as the fungus Candida.

Emotional and Other Stressors — So many things can stress the GI system. Having a “bad” day or experiencing emotional stress, a change in routine, traveling and eating unfamiliar foods are normal stressors that can get our digestion out of whack. The body can usually handle these stressors when they are short-term, but becomes overwhelm when they are the rule rather than the exception.

Digestive Health and Nutrition Supplements

There are many nutritional supplements that can support your digestive systems, each in their own way.

Some botanicals and herbs have been shown to reduce gut inflammation or help repair the gut mucosa and restore its integrity, others can stimulate the liver’s production and release of bile.

Digestive enzymes can support digestion of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Other digestive enzymes can help digest common components that trigger food sensitivities such as gluten, dairy, lactose, casein and phenols.

Probiotics, are “good” microorganisms that are naturally in our GI tracts, but are often there in unbalanced or inadequate numbers. By taking the probiotics, a healthier ecosystem of microbes in the gut can be restored. Microbes in the gut can confer benefits such as maintaining a healthy gut lining, decreasing inflammation, producing vitamins, defending against pathological bacteria and much more.

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