Good digestion is important to the health of your whole body. If you aren’t digesting, it can affect nearly every system, organ, and tissue in your body.
If you are feeling bloated or gassy after meals, get heartburn easily, feel like skipping breakfast, or crave bread frequently you may have digestive dysfunction. Despite what you have likely heard, the symptoms I just listed are not normal, although they are very common.
There are six foundations of health that nutritional therapy focuses on, one of the most important being digestion. Digestive dysfunction cascades into many of the other foundations, as well as what we refer to as the consequences.
The consequences where dysfunction can present are:
– the endocrine system,
– the immune system,
– the cardiovascular system, and
– the detoxification system
If we are seeing an imbalance in one of the consequences above, it can always be tied back to an imbalance in the foundations, and very often to a dysfunction in the digestive process with which it is intimately linked. Along with the consequences, our digestion also has a close relationship with the friendly bacteria that live in our gut.
Ready to start exploring digestion and the consequences of dysfunction? Let’s dive in!
The Endocrine System & Digestion
The endocrine system is a network of complex relationships with hormones in the driver’s seat. Our hormones “transfer information and instructions from one set of [body] cells to another” (Endocrine Introduction, 2020, 1:48), working closely with our neurological system to ensure our body and mind are in homeostasis. Hormones help to regulate things like our metabolism, energy, and our sleep-wake cycle, and govern our reproductive systems.
So how do hormones tie in with our digestion? Hormones are made from nutrients in the foods we consume, such as protein, fat and cholesterol, and minerals. If we are not eating high-quality nutrients, we are not making high-quality hormones. But there is more to it than that. If we are having dysfunction in our digestive system, we cannot properly break down and assimilate those high-quality nutrients that our body needs to create hormones.
Digestion is a north to south process, beginning in the brain and ending with elimination. Dysfunction can happen in any of these places that will impact how your body is able to break down the nutrients you eat, thus affecting your hormone production.
We must take care to properly chew our food so that the nutrients begin to break down in preparation for moving to our stomach. Our mouth contains salivary glands with enzymes designed to begin the digestive process, and these enzymes cannot be formed without the minerals our digestive system frees from our food.
Once the food hits your stomach, it is further broken down for digestion by your stomach acid, but if stomach acid production is low, your food cannot be broken down well enough for your small intestine to absorb the nutrients. In your small intestine, juices from your pancreas and liver (by way of the gallbladder) further break down the nutrients being digested.
Add to this that each hormone has a mineral upon which it depends for synthesis. If minerals from our food cannot be absorbed and utilized because of low digestive function, our hormone synthesis suffers.
The digestive process itself needs hormones to function properly, and if those hormones cannot be made because digestion is poor then it can become a vicious cycle. For example, the hormones gastrin and secretin govern stomach acid production, and if they are inadequately synthesized your food cannot be broken down.
Can you see now how intimately linked digestion is with the endocrine system? Your diet can be nearly perfect, but if your digestive process cannot break down the nutrients you eat, your body cannot make hormones.
The Immune System & Digestion
Your immune system typically works in the background, helping to keep you from getting sick by sending its army all around your body, but when you notice that it’s working, you really notice it. You feel the fever, runny nose, sore muscles, digestive upset, and fatigue, or pain and swelling with a skin injury. This is your immune system hard at work keeping you alive by fighting your internal battles with pathogens.
We may not often link digestion with our immune system, but they are like BFFs; if one is down, the other suffers.
Our first line of defense against pathogens like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites includes our physical barriers; the skin and internal barriers. The digestive system not only includes the physical barrier of our organ walls, but also our stomach acid, intestinal lymphoid tissue, and the microflora in our large intestine. Together these pieces work in harmony to keep pathogens out, and they are very effective! But only when they are healthy.
Ingested pathogens first make their way down to the stomach where they mingle with stomach acid, which is designed to denature proteins. This is a very effective barrier that will kill most of the pathogens you consume, but if your stomach acid is low it cannot be effective at killing those pathogens and they will move down into your small intestine.
In your small intestine, pathogenic bacteria can create big issues if left to breed. Thankfully we have defenses there as well; strong cells tightly knit together, protective mucus, and a whole bunch of friendly microbes; but if things become amiss here it can allow those unfriendly pathogens to make it into your bloodstream and lymph system. Poor diet and stress can lead to what has been termed “leaky gut”, which lets pathogens and food particles through.
When pathogens make it into your blood and lymph, your immune system goes into overdrive. This can cause all sorts of issues like chronic fatigue, mood disturbances, and more. When it comes to undigested food particles, our digestive tract may recognize food as friend, but our immune system may not. Dealing with food particles can cause already-overwhelmed immune cells to mark them as foe and trigger food sensitivities or allergies.
When I mentioned above that digestion and immunity are like BFFs, I meant it. Let’s flip it now. Healthy digestion means that our bodies can break down and utilize the nutrients we eat. Our immune system relies on them to function properly, creating the army of cells that fight all our internal battles. If we can’t digest our food, our immune system cannot function optimally.
The Cardiovascular System & Digestion
Our digestive system is really the gatekeeper for our body, and if it is sluggish, irritated, inflamed, or too permeable, it cannot do its job. This is important to the cardiovascular system for two main reasons:
- Healthy fats are the predominant source of energy for our heart and to manage inflammation that affects our heart and blood vessels. If we cannot digest fats, the cardiovascular system cannot use them.
- Inflammation, if left unchecked, is a strong indicator of risk for heart disease. A “leaky gut” and a weak microbiome are both consequences of inflammation and can contribute to high blood pressure and artery plaque build-up.
The healthy fats you ingest are emulsified by bile produced in your liver and stored in your gallbladder. Proper digestion of fats is critical to their utilization. Supporting the liver and gallbladder is a great way to ensure that bile production is adequate for breakdown of those lovely healthy fats you’re taking care to consume regularly.
Once the healthy fats are broken down, they provide energy to your heart and help to manage the normal inflammatory process your body needs to go through to heal damage. If too much inflammation exists, it can create a host of issues within the body that negatively impact the cardiovascular system.
Lifestyle is a big regulator of inflammation, and things that contribute to inflammation include eating a diet high in processed foods and refined sugar, high toxic load, poor sleep, lack of exercise or movement, high stress, and smoking. This inflammation can impair our digestive system by causing a “leaky gut” which can let food particles through your digestive tract into your bloodstream and cause many issues.
Inflammation can also impair our lovely gut flora that help to break down foods, synthesize vitamins essential to our health, and support our nervous system function. If our gut microbes are not functioning optimally, it can have consequences on our cardiovascular system like increased blood pressure and even increased risk of harmful LDL particles that contribute to cholesterol plaques in arteries.
Supporting the digestive system is a strong first step to protecting and supporting the health of the cardiovascular system so that the heart can do its job and the blood vessels can keep themselves clear and open.
The Detoxification System & Digestion
Detoxification is the way your body heals and repairs itself. Did you know that “cleansing” as a trend is actually moot and likely unnecessary? Your body can and does detoxify itself every single day from inevitable internal and external toxins we encounter. The body makes metabolic wastes on it’s own, but we also come into contact with other environmental toxins that become waste we need to eliminate as well.
The key point to remember with detoxification is that “a healthy body can identify, process, and eliminate toxins effectively.” (Detoxification Introduction, 2020, 4:04) Our many detoxification processes rely on ingested nutrients to work effectively, and that’s where a nutrient-dense, whole food diet and a healthy digestive system come into play.
Our digestive system is crucial to our healthy detoxification. It not only provides a physical barrier to stop foreign bacteria and chemicals from entering the body, but it also helps to eliminate toxins by filtering them through the liver and then excreting them using bile. Amino acids from ingested protein must be digested to support the detoxification process pathways that eliminate toxins. Fat digestion is also imperative to avoid clogging the lymph and the liver.
Furthermore, the liver has a two-phase detoxification process that relies heavily on enzymes to function. Minerals are precursors to enzymes, meaning that our wonderful meals need to be digested properly to free up those minerals to make those enzymes to support our detoxification processes and keep us clear of toxin buildup.
Finally, if we are not able to eliminate toxins through urine or bowel movements, those toxins can accumulate in our tissues and cause a lot of damage. Adipose tissue, better known as fat cells, holds onto toxins that the body finds difficult to eliminate. If we are doing a “cleanse” that causes rapid weight loss, those toxins are freed all at once and need to be eliminated quickly to keep the body from reacting in a possibly harmful way. Ensuring the elimination pathways are open first will help those freed toxins leave the body without causing issues.
Detoxification is a normal function of a healthy body, but poor digestion can quickly stunt the process. Avoid “cleansing” protocols and instead focus on supporting optimal digestion and elimination.
The Gut Microbiome & Digestion
Digestion is imperative to a healthy body and mind. One of the key markers of a well-functioning digestive system is a diverse gut microbiome.
What is the gut microbiome? Logan and Prescott (2017) say, “The microbiome is defined as the microbes (and their genetic material) found in various ecological niches, such as the human gut or skin.” (p. 7) In other words, it’s a colony of friendly bacteria that live inside your intestines and help your body work optimally. These little friends help to digest your food, create a few important vitamins, protect you from pathogenic microbes, and talk to your brain.
Eating a nutrient-dense, whole food diet is the best thing you can do to keep your microbiome healthy and active. Fermented foods, prebiotic fiber, and phytonutrients in fresh produce all support your gut flora by keeping them happy, active, and thriving. Our little buddies are easy to please!
So what makes them grumpy? Mainly, stress. Our stress hormones increase the growth of certain harmful bacteria that can crowd out our beneficial friends. Stress can be things like work and commute traffic, but also environmental pollutants, tobacco smoke, alcohol, noise, too much caffeine, constipation, food sensitivities, and even medications. Lack of sleep and lack of movement or exercise are also big stressors.
Another strong indicator of a person’s gut microbiome health is the amount of time they are spending in nature. People who spend less time in nature are shown to have a reduced diversity in their gut microbiota that can lead to immune dysfunction, disease, and even higher risk of developing mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. Although going to the forest is a great option, so is planting a tree in your yard, playing in the dirt, or even getting a few houseplants.
We may not think about it often, but considering diet and lifestyle for our gut microbiome is an important part of keeping our body healthy. These beneficial friends help with so much more than just moving our food through our bowels, although that is a very important job. What can you do today to take care of them?
Digestive Health is Important
Well-functioning digestion keeps our body’s processes running smoothly, from hormone health to immune health, and even the health our cardiovascular system. Supporting your digestive system is a very important key to overall health and function of your body.
The symptoms we encounter related to the consequences above can often be supported or eliminated by supporting the Foundations of Health, including digestion.
If you are interested in learning more about supporting your digestion, along with the other Foundations, please click through to this article: Nutritional Therapy’s Foundations of Health
McCafferty, Krista. (2020). Endocrine Introduction [Video]. Retrieved from: https://nutritionaltherapy.instructure.com/courses/177/pages/endo-%7C-core-videos?module_item_id=7860
Martin-Horst, Janine. (2020). Detoxification Introduction [Video]. Retrieved from: https://nutritionaltherapy.instructure.com/courses/177/pages/det-%7C-core-videos?module_item_id=7884
Logan, A., & Prescott, S. (2017). The Secret Life of the Microbiome. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.