Nutrition is not as simple as calories in equal’s calories out. 500 calories of fast-food have a very different nutritive value than 500 calories of raw fruits and vegetables. This choice is conscious. However imagine if after making this decision, your body couldn’t process the beneficial vitamins and minerals from option 2. Imagine if eating raw fruits and vegetables were only as nourishing as a fast-food alternative.
Is this happening to you?
Poor digestion and leaky gut syndrome are two serious and newly evolving causes of major pathological diseases. Intestinal health, if unbalanced has been linked to the development of depression1, autoimmune diseases2 and even chronic fatigue syndrome3.
The theory works like a back to back stack of dominos. Poor digestion leads to poor gut health which leads to an immune-triggered response – inflammation.
When inflammation is chronically switched ‘on’, the body and all of its organs are prematurely aged.
Is this happening to you? How would you know? What can you do to promote great gut health?
You have questions. We have answers…
What does great digestion look like?
Great digestion is a 3 stage process. Food moves from mouth to stomach and from stomach to Intestine with each new environment offering a new and different way to efficiently break down food.
Whole foods are packed with valuable nutrients which are used to fuel the human body. Healing trace minerals, collagen promoting vitamin C and antioxidant omega-3 fatty acids. In order to absorb these nutrients, the body must first break them down into useable portions. A walnut is just a walnut until it’s broken down into omega 3 fats, folic acid, and vitamin E.
Stage 1: Digestion by Mouth.
The first step to ensuring nourishment through food begins as soon as food enters the mouth. What may seem basic is in fact very important to achieving great digestion.
There are 2 processes at work here. Firstly the mechanical process of chewing and secondly the release of digestive enzymes. Digestion begins through chewing with the hardened enamel of teeth physically breaking down large, indigestible bodies of food. Chewing food efficiently turns unusable nutrients into smaller particles while also stimulating the release of digestive enzymes4 into saliva.
Stage 2: Digestion by Stomach
A minimum of 6 seconds is all it takes for well-chewed food to arrive in the stomach. Once here, aggressively low pH stomach acid turns what could still be recognised as walnuts and broccoli into a milky fluid called chyme. This process takes 2-6 hours and afterward the well broken down mixture may be released into the small intestine.
Stage 3: Digestion by Intestine
Arguably the most important part of the entire digestive process. During stage 3 foods enters the small intestine. The release of further digestive enzymes alongside a healthy colony of good gut bacteria turn chyme into digestible, absorbable nutrients. The body is fed.
What happens when great digestion goes wrong?
Healthy digestion feeds and nurtures, poor digestion robs and ruins. Technically named malabsorption syndrome, when great digestion goes wrong, the body is not fed. That means a lack of vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. Alongside feelings of fatigue, malabsorption can also lead to longer term health troubles such as anaemia, oedema, muscle wasting, and malnutrition.
Inadequately digested foods may also serve as a food source for bad bacteria. If in overgrowth, a resident population of bad bacteria can lead to a gut disorder named small intestinal bacterial overgrowth5 (SIBO). A condition highlighted as a cause of irritable bowel syndrome6, food intolerances7, chronic bloating8 and even inflammatory skin conditions like rosacea9.
How can malabsorption syndrome develop?
Malabsorption syndrome also commonly known as poor digestion places a significant amount of stress on the body. With its contraction leading to an array of unwanted symptoms, understanding how it can develop is paramount to avoiding it.
An area still under significant scientific scrutiny, there are several risk factors suspected;
- Antibiotic treatments, having potential to cull both good and bad gut bacteria.
- Poor diet, laden with inflammatory foods such as alcohol, sugar and fried snacks.
- Processed foods the body is not developed to break down.
- Infection, leading to an upset of the gut microflora and lining.
- Chronic stress, leading to inflammation and poor digestive health.
The gut is primarily responsible for supplying the human body with all of the nutrients and energy it requires. When it’s not performing optimally, it won’t be long before symptoms are experienced. Knowing how to identify the warning signs may help avoid serious, life-long conditions.
Malabsorption and poor digestion – do I have It?
Adaptability is a skill the human body is well versed in, however, once stress levels breach this invisible threshold, signs and symptoms rear. It’s very important to look out for these warnings because action at this point could help avoid the contraction of a serious disorder.
The 4 most frequently noticed warning signs;
- Skin conditions. Rosacea, acne, eczema and psoriasis. What do they all have in common? Inflammation. Skin is a roadmap to the body’s inner health. When hydrated and well fed, it’s able to appear healthy and resilient. However, when stressed by poor inner health, its usual protection against the development of skin disorders is breached. If you’ve recently developed small patches of eczema or experience prolonged facial redness, this may be a warning sign of poor digestion and poor gut health.
- Food intolerances & allergies. The rate of diagnosed food intolerances in the western world has never been higher. Dairy, gluten, wheat, soya. Food intolerances developed later in life may signal poor gut health. Sometimes referred to as leaky gut syndrome, food intolerance can indicate increased intestinal permeability10. With the body absorbing too readily, leaky gut syndrome hypothesises that a decreased selectivity provokes an inflammatory immune response. In other words, a food intolerance or allergy is contracted.
- Fatigue/Weight loss. Malabsorption syndrome literally creates an environment where your body is unable to nourish itself. Food may be eaten, however, if it’s not digested optimally, essential vitamins, minerals, and omegas cannot be absorbed. This creates a nutrient and calorie deficit. Experiencing ongoing fatigue or struggling to maintain a healthy weight on a well-balanced diet could be a sign of poor digestion.
- Gas alongside bloating/diarrhoea/constipation. Poor digestion may be caused by problems in any 3 of the key digestive stages – mouth, stomach, intestines. Wherever the trigger occurs, symptoms are most likely to be experienced in the intestines. The inability of the body to absorb fats can cause diarrhoea. If certain foods are not digested completely they can serve as food sources for bacteria provoking gas, bloating and flatulence.
The negative effects of poor digestion
Poor digestion prematurely ages the human body. It creates an inability for the body to perform optimally leading to undue stress, immune reaction and finally inflammation. Whenever the human body senses something has gone astray, it naturally triggers an immune response. The aim – to attack the invader and heal the damage. When inflammation occurs in small, defined doses its benefits out-weigh the negatives. However chronic inflammation, the type that persists for months or even years is the trigger of many extremely serious health conditions.
The human body can tolerate small episodes of trauma well, however, if, under prolonged attack, there’s no respite for repair.
If poor digestion is left unchecked the body finds itself in this second situation. Fighting a war against a stressor it cannot suppress.
With poor digestion linked to IBS, rosacea, chronic fatigue syndrome, anaemia and more, looking after your personal digestive health has never been more important.
8 ways to improve your digestive health
Digestive health is unique to each person. Improving yours may simply be achieved by eating clean. For others, one change may be too little and a combination of changes may be needed. The following 8 can be acted upon today to help improve your digestive health.
- Probiotics/Probiotic foods
Probiotics can be found naturally in foods or as probiotic supplements. Each contains a helpful dose of live bacteria and yeasts to work in harmony with those already resident in the human body. Probiotics are often referred to as ‘good’ bacteria. They promote good digestion and help to down-regulate existing inflammation11.
Action: Live cultured yoghurt is the best natural source of probiotics, however, if you’re dairy intolerant a probiotic supplement can be used instead.
They sound similar to probiotics, however, prebiotics work a step in advance. Prebiotics are typically dietary fibres which are able to remain undigested by the stomach and small intestine. Making their way to the gut in their undigested form allows prebiotic foods to serve as a nutrient for healthy gut bacteria12. Recent studies have shown low doses help to improve the symptoms of IBS, while also helping to treat digestive conditions like ulcerative colitis13.
Action: Prebiotics are most commonly found in raw chicory root, garlic, onion, asparagus, and banana.
- Fermented foods
Fermented foods are foods which have been broken down by the addition of bacteria. This process makes the nutrients more readily digestible while also offering a healthy dose of additional gut friendly bacteria.
Action: Kefir, miso, kimchi and sauerkraut all offer great benefits for digestion.
- Care for your stomach acid
While many steps towards great gut health focus on the lower gut, it’s also important to attend to the upper gut. This includes your stomach. With gastric juice averaging an acidic pH of 1.5 to 3.5, stomach acid plays a vital role towards ensuring food reaches the intestines as digestible chyme. If your stomach acid is raised above pH 3.5, poor digestion may ensue.
Action: Avoid alkaline water or diets described as alkaline promoting. It may also be helpful to add acidifying foods to your diet e.g. apple cider vinegar.
- Chew slowly and thoroughly
Simple solutions can have great effects. Chewing food slowly and fully helps to initiate the digestive process as nature intended.
Action: Slow down and chew well to safeguard your digestive health.
- Up your intake of anti-inflammatory foods
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to an attack. Where small bouts of inflammation are healing, ongoing chronic inflammation is not. Certain foods actively provoke inflammation within the body. Two widely recognised culprits include fried foods and processed cane sugar. The prevalence of both within modern day diets can cause the intestinal tract to become inflamed and poorly absorbing.
Action: Cut out inflammatory food groups and replace them with gut healing anti-inflammatory foods such as olive oil, tomatoes, blueberries and fatty fish.
- Drink in moderation
Alcohol is an anti-bacterial as well as an inflammatory. The combination of these skills can initiate a negative, cumulative effect on the health of your digestive tract. Killing beneficial digestive bacteria as well as aggravating the intestinal lining. In fact, it is known that alcohol actively inhibits the absorption of an important energy vitamin – Thiamine14.
Action: Drink in moderation.
- Eat the right fibre
Fibre is a unique food group. The human body cannot digest it and yet it still needs the right kinds of fibre for healthy digestion. These fibre types feed gut friendly bacteria while also helping to slow the passage through the intestines. This maximises nutrient absorption and reduces the urge to overeat and therefore overuse the gut15. Alongside this, certain classes of healthy fibres such as resistant starches are able to lower blood sugar levels helping to reduce the amount of ageing stress levied through food16.
Action: Increase your intake of healthy gut fibres including oats, cashew nuts, Brussel sprouts and flax seeds.
The bottom line: Great gut health works towards improving your immune function and reducing the amount of ageing stress levied to your body. Take action today by looking after yours.
Sources and references
- Michael Maes et al., Increased IgA and IgM responses against gut commensals in chronic depression: Further evidence for increased bacterial translocation or leaky gut, Journal of Affective Disorders, Volume 141, Issue 1, 1 December 2012, Pages 55–62, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2012.02.023
- Fasano, A. Clinic Rev Allerg Immunol (2012) 42: 71. doi:10.1007/s12016-011-8291-x.
- Maes M et al., Normalization of leaky gut in chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is accompanied by a clinical improvement: effects of age, duration of illness and the translocation of LPS from gram-negative bacteria. Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 2008 Dec;29(6):902-10.
- N. W. Read et al., Swallowing food without chewing; a simple way to reduce postprandial glycaemia, British Journal of Nutrition 1986, 55, 43-47.
- Gabrielli M et al., Diagnosis of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth in the clinical practice. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2013;17 Suppl 2:30-5.
- Mark Pimentel MD et al., Eradication of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth reduces symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. The American Journal of Gastroenterology (2000) 95, 3503–3506; doi:10.1111/j.1572-0241.2000.03368.x
- J. Zhao et al., Lactose intolerance in patients with chronic functional diarrhoea: the role of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2010 Apr; 31(8): 892–900. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2036.2010.04252.x.
- Utility of wireless motility capsule and lactulose breath testing in the evaluation of patients with chronic functional bloating. BMJ Open Gastroenterol. 2016 Aug 18;3(1):e000110. doi: 10.1136/bmjgast-2016-000110.
- Andrea Parodi et a;., Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth in Rosacea: Clinical Effectiveness of Its Eradication. Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology Volume 6, Issue 7, July 2008, Pages 759–764.
- Stephan C Bischoff et al., Intestinal permeability – a new target for disease prevention and therapy. BMC Gastroenterology 2014 14:189, DOI: 10.1186/s12876-014-0189-7.
- SPILLER, R. (2008), Review article: probiotics and prebiotics in irritable bowel syndrome. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 28: 385–396. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2036.2008.03750.x
- Parnell JA, Reimer RA. Prebiotic fiber modulation of the gut microbiota improves risk factors for obesity and the metabolic syndrome. Gut microbes. 2012;3(1):10.4161/gmic.19246. doi:10.4161/gmic.19246.
- Guandalini S. Are Probiotics or Prebiotics Useful in Pediatric Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Inflammatory Bowel Disease? Frontiers in Medicine. 2014;1:23. doi:10.3389/fmed.2014.00023.
- Subramanya SB, Subramanian VS, Said HM. Chronic alcohol consumption and intestinal thiamin absorption: effects on physiological and molecular parameters of the uptake process. American Journal of Physiology – Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology. 2010;299(1):G23-G31. doi:10.1152/ajpgi.00132.2010.
- B. Burton-Freeman, Dietary fiber and energy regulation, J Nutr. 2000 Feb; 130(2S): 272S–275S.
- Birt DF, Boylston T, Hendrich S, et al. Resistant Starch: Promise for Improving Human Health. Advances in Nutrition. 2013;4(6):587-601. doi:10.3945/an.113.004325.