It’s not just what you eat, it’s what you digest. Your health depends on the nutrients you actually absorb!

When I visited my parents today, we were discussing the topic of supplements. As you may know from previous posts, I recently put my dad on CoQ10 to improve his heart disease/cholesterol holistically, and it has done wonders for his mood and energy levels. My mom kept asking if there was a supplement or multivitamin she could take as well to just “fix everything.” This is something that a lot of us wish for, since Western Medicine has conditioned us to expect an easy pill for every ailment. I told her that although there are no quick fixes, simply improving her DIGESTION – and thus her absorption of nutrients – could do more than taking half the bottles in a health food store!

Now, this isn’t to say that supplements don’t have their place. I take several myself that have been game-changers, because when they are high quality and serve a specific purpose (like CoQ10 for my dad’s cholesterol, or magnesium for cramps/anxiety), they can serve as wonderful tools in our nutrient-depleted world. However, diet should always come first — and even before that, we need to look at how much of our diet we are actually breaking down. How much of your food are you truly digesting?

What happens when we don’t fully break down our food: nutrient deficiencies

Take essential fatty acids (EFAs) as an example. Let’s say you’re eating plenty of healthy fats, but you still have dry skin or stiff, poorly lubricacted joints. If your body is not releasing enough pancreatic enzymes, stomach acid, or bile salts to properly digest that fat, you will not be able to hydrolyze the fat molecules and absorb the tiny essential fatty acids within them. Therefore you will still experience symptoms of fatty acid deficiency, which can include cracking skin on your hands, dry hair, PMS, cramps, joint pain, eczema, depression and more. You can take a natural essential fatty acid supplement to combat these symptoms (think about how many people take Omega 3s), however improving your digestion and absorption of dietary fat allows you to cut out the middle man and have one less bottle on your shelf.

Another example is Vitamin B12.

B12 is most commonly found attached to proteins, and therefore requires complete protein breakdown to be liberated. Optimal digestion of vitamin B12 is dependent on your ability to make a healthy amount of stomach acid (just like EFAs and most other nutrients), since protein breakdown requires a very acidic environment. Over 40% of the population is low in B12, and think about how many people suffer from some type of digestive dysfunction. This inability to breakdown our food is really taking a toll on our nutrient stores. And while taking a B12 supplement can correct a deficiency and greatly improve one’s mental health, it would be wonderful to work on improving your stomach acid production in the meantime so that you can absorb it from your food in the future (and once again, cut out the middle man!)

The list goes on and on. We could even talk about amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, and once again are only unlocked when protein is fully broken down by stomach acid and digestive enzymes. Without enough amino acids (meaning not just enough dietary protein, but protein that is FULLY broken down into all of its tiny parts), the brain can go a bit haywire since these aminos are precursors to a whole host of neurotransmitters. In fact, amino acid deficiencies are very common in kids with ADHD. If you google “Willy’s Baggie Ingredient List,” you’ll read about a father and son who have used heavy supplementation of free-form amino acids (among other things) to heal their various diagnoses including ADHD, depression, and bipolar disorder.

And while I’m right on board with every supplement in Willy’s baggie (and in awe of their discoveries and experimentation), I know that with improved digestion, both Willy and his dad would be able to better absorb many of these crucial nutrients  from the fresh food on their plates instead. Again, the more we can narrow down the bottles on our shelves, the better. Perhaps they could even exchange a few of their existing nutrient supplements for digestion-enhancing supplements that would help extract nutrients for them (like the enzymes and HCL they’re missing!)

Why is our digestion so inadequate these days?

Let’s talk about the main reasons why Americans’ digestive power is dwindling. The 4 basic things we need for killer digestion and absorption are: 1) adequate stomach acid, 2) digestive enzymes, 3) proper bile flow, and 4) beneficial gut bacteria.

1. Stomach Acid

Strong stomach acid is a precursor for good nutrition and it is required for the absorption of important vitamins and minerals such as calcium, zinc, iron, and B vitamins that require a highly acidic environment for absorption. It’s also required to activate digestive enzymes like pepsin in the stomach whose job is to cleave apart amino acids so that they can be fully and properly absorbed.

As I keep hinting at, our stomach acid is way lower than it should be. I’ve written several posts about this before. “Acid reflux” is exploding in the U.S., and contrary to popular belief, it’s not because of “too much” acid. There’s actually not enough acid to signal our lower esophageal sphincters to close in the first place. Thus, food comes back up the sphincter and burns or ‘repeats’ on us.

There are many reasons why we’re lacking in precious HCL. In today’s world of high stress, fast and processed foods, antibiotic use, prescription, and over the counter drugs, many people have a very deficient supply. Mineral deficiency is a big cause too, since minerals are absolutely essential for the production of stomach acid. The star mineral for HCL is zinc, but because our soil is so beat up from pesticides and overfarming, zinc tends to come up short in our diets. Eating organic foods rich in zinc (pumpkin seeds and high quality animal foods if applicable), or even including zinc in your list of narrowed-down essential supplements, can not only help to replenish your stomach acid but can heal the gut lining as well.

The final factor in low stomach acid that I haven’t mentioned yet would be chronic low-grade bacterial, viral, or parasitic infections. These infections not only cause body-wide inflammation and stress, which prevent the release of HCL in the first place, they can also physically dilute our hydrochloric acid to ensure their own survival and prevent us from breaking down food. Taking care of these infections can take a huge burden off of your digestive process.

Although I’m going to talk about digestive enzymes next, I’ve mentioned stomach acid first for a reason – enzymes rely on stomach acid to turn them on. Without stomach acid, enzymes remain dormant and inactive, so HCL is what you want to take care of immediately! In Part 2 of this post I’ll give you practical tips for increasing your levels.

2. Digestive Enzyme Production

Digestive enzymes are primarily produced in the pancreas and small intestine (although they’re also made in the salivary glands, which is why it’s so important to chew your food!) Ideally, the pancreas secretes about a liter and a half of pancreatic enzymes into the duodenum every single day. Pancreatic insufficiency, and thus a lack of these crucial enzymes, can lead to slow transit time and the poorly absorbed nutrients I’ve been discussing. Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) and parasite growth can develop if the enzymatic insufficiency and undigested food continues over time. This manifests often as bloating, gas, fatigue, and constipation. It has also been linked to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

There are many reasons why proper digestive enzyme production can become impeded. First, diseases may prevent enzyme release, such as pancreatic problems, celiac disease, Crohn’s, and diabetes
However, even in the absence of any obvious disease, there are a few sneaky culprits that can catch up with us. These include:

  • low grade inflammation in the digestive tract (caused by food sensitivities resulting from the continuous presence of undigested food particles, “leaky gut,” dysbiosis, parasites, etc.)
  • aging
  • low stomach acid (as I mentioned, since stomach acid activates the enzymes in the first place)
  • chronic stress (because our bodies can only properly release digestive helpers when we’re in parasympathetic “rest and digest” mode!)

If you have the sensation that you have food sitting in your stomach like a rock after you eat, if you get full after a few bites, or if you experience gas and bloating post-meals, it’s likely that you’re not producing enough digestive enzymes. And again, in Part 2 of this post, I’ll give you some tips to up that production.

3. Proper bile release

Your liver and gallbladder have a lot to do with this epidemic of lackluster digestion. The bile released by your GB is absolutely crucial for the emulsification of fats into digestible molecules, just like I mentioned in my essential fatty acid example. Fats are primarily digested by bile salts and the pancreatic enzyme lipase, and you’re going to need them fully broken down if you want proper brain function and beautiful skin.

If you’ve been on a low fat diet for any length of time, your gallbladder doesn’t get signaled to do it’s job – which is to regularly release bile. This causes any existing bile stored in the gallbladder to get old and viscous, which leads to a build up of stones and deposits. Eating the wrong kinds of fats (refined oils, canola/vegetable oil, fried food, factory farmed meats, etc.) can also cause your bile to become thick and viscous when it’s really supposed to be thin and free flowing. The gallbladder will then have a heck of a time trying to squeeze out the thick bile through the common bile duct. When no bile can get out, it means you will not be able to digest your fats or kill pathogens that you may have ingested on your food.

Other reasons for bile production and release to slow down are: poor hydrochloric acid production (see how it keeps going back to low stomach acid?), gluten sensitivity, and having an excess amount of estrogen in the body (which is very common thanks to plastics, pesticides, and heavy metals AKA metalloestrogens)

Let’s also not forget that a healthy liver is basically a filter — it processes thousands of toxins every single day. Your liver must get rid of these toxins through bile with the help of your gall bladder. If that bile is thick and stagnant due to the reasons previously mentioned, some of the toxins will ultimately be stored in the fat in your liver. The more fat your liver has to hold onto to prevent these toxins from getting inside, the greater your chances for fatty liver disease. That’s why it’s more important than ever to ensure your gallbladder is regularly releasing that beautiful free-flowing bile.

4. Probiotics

Inside our digestive tract we have somewhere around 100 trillion bacteria happily living and thriving. We now know that our gut flora helps us properly digest our food, protects us from pathogens (harmful microorganisms), helps us detoxify harmful compounds, produces vitamins and other nutrients, keeps our guts healthy, and balances our immune systems.

There are a number of things that will disrupt our balance of gut bacteria, but two of the biggest things for most people are stress and antibiotics.

In fact, I saw a study a while ago that looked at a subject’s gut bacteria before and immediately after a stressful, anxiety-inducing plane ride. It completely changed, and not for the better. Pathogenic strains were more prevalent and beneficial ones were crowded out. Our minds have a huge effect on our guts!

Another factor in gut bacteria disruption is a lack of fiber variety (or just fiber in general) in our modern Western diets.

Because good bacteria is so crucial for the breakdown of food, we’re going to discuss several ways to restore their presence in my next post.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where we look at solutions to repair all 4 components of digestion that I’ve mentioned above. I hope this post helped you understand why breaking down your food into its tiny components is so important, and how your body goes through that process.

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