10 May 2010
Few malfunctioning body systems can grab one's attention as quickly the digestive tract. A single, little episode of heartburn or diarrhoea can really ruin one's day.
For the purposes of this article we are focusing on the gastro-intestinal tract and not auxiliary digestive organs.
Digestion begins in the mind. We don't often give the brain and senses their due credit in the process of digestion. Thinking about food, seeing pictures or displays of beautifully made food, and/or smelling pleasing aromas begins the nervous system reaction of stimulating the release of digestive juices in the mouth, stomach, and small intestines. This physiological reaction can be stifled, however. Stress is the first and biggest culprit when it comes to poor digestion. The sympathetic nervous system knows that when there is stress there are more important things to be done (like running from bears, dodging ricocheting bullets, and dealing with a fast-paced life) than digesting that alfalfa sprout and cream cheese on multi-grain bread sandwich.
Assuming that life is good, and that one's sympathetic nervous system is not over-worked, the next step of digestion happens in the alkaline mouth. This is the location of the teeth and salivary glands. I repeat, this is the only location of teeth. They are supposed to be used to crush food to a very fine consistency, mixing it with the help of the tongue, with enzyme-rich saliva. Without adequate chewing to mechanically break food particles into smaller bits, the rest of the digestive processes cannot progress. You may be surprised to learn that humans do not have teeth in their stomachs, so all chewing must be completed in the mouth.
When I was a teenager I learned a campsong, sung to the melody of Row, Row, Row Your Boat. It went like this:
Chew, chew, chew your food
Gently through the meal.
The more you chew
The more you eat
The better you will feel.
As a teen I certainly didn't understand the truth of this little ditty.
Saliva contains enzymes that begin the digestion of carbohydrates. These are the only enzymes that can begin the chemical breakdown of carbohydrates. Washing food down, even with water, defeats the purpose of saliva and chewing and compromises all further digestive activities. Drinking water with meals often prevents thorough chewing, thus preventing adequate mechanical breakdown of foods and adequate chemical breakdown of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates (and proteins and fats) that are not properly dealt with in the mouth cannot be further digested anywhere else, and the result will be large amounts of gas build up in the digestive tract and poor assimilation of nutrients. Drinking fluids with meals, and the resulting poor breakdown of food, leads to more acid reactions at the blood level and increases one's chances of developing arthritis, mucous congestion, and other inflammatory reactions.
From the mouth, food and drink is propelled down the muscular esophagus to the stomach. The rhythmic muscular contractions of the esophagus are called peristalsis.
The valve that is between the base of the esophagus and the top of the stomach is actually a circular band of muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter. It relaxes during swallowing and serves to help keep food from backwashing up the esophagus. When backwashing does occur it is called reflux. Since the contents of the stomach are acidic and the esophagus is alkaline, reflux creates the burning and pressure known as heartburn. Reflux is generally worse when lying down, so it makes good sense to avoid reclining soon after a meal. Some doctors also recommend elevating the head of the bed a few inches.
This is also made worse when a hiatal hernia forms, creating a bulge of stomach that has worked its way above the diaphragm. Food trapped here creates pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter and increases reflux. Some chiropractors osteopaths know how to correct this.
The stomach is supposed to be acidic. It is in this acidic environment that proteins can be broken down into amino acids. If there is not enough acid to do the job, the result is very foul intestinal gas and very sour belching. As humans, we usually begin to lose our stomach acid around age 35. By the time we are 55 we are lucky to have even one-half of our acid production capabilities left.
There are some easy changes that can be made to help prevent and/or put out the fire of heartburn, reflux, and stomach gas. First, avoid coffee and non-herbal tea. (It is my opinion that green tea is no better than regular tea because of its caffeine and acid content. I can pick up the promised antioxidants in many other places without the caffeine and acid.) Second, use peppermint oil generously. Stomach Comfort is another great way to deal with acid stomach, heart burn, and stomach gas (burping). Remember not to touch the opening of the bottle with your skin, instead, turn the bottle upside down and gently tap one drop into a little warm water or onto the back of your hand for you to lick off. Used this way, peppermint oil stimulates the production of digestive juices and enzymes to get the food moving on through the system. It also helps reduce stomach gas. Third, for heartburn, slippery elm is super. Break two or three capsules open, mix the powder with just enough water to make a cookie dough consistency, eat. By taking the herb out of the capsule the body does not have to take ten to twenty minutes to digest the capsule before getting the relief slippery elm has to offer. Fourth, avoid diluting stomach acid with beverages at mealtime. You may even choose to enhance them with Protein Digestive Aid or Digestive Enzymes or Garden Essence Enzymes.
The majority of stomach ulcers have now been proven to be the result of a bacterial infection in the stomach. Standard medical treatment is a heavy regimen of antibiotics for several weeks. This runs the potential risk of setting up a yeast/candida infection that usually takes at least another six weeks of herbal therapy and diet changes to eliminate. Instead, it makes sense to 'first do no harm'. ULC-R+, with its deglycyrrizinated licorice root extract has been shown in clinical studies to eliminate the offending bacteria without upsetting the other delicate balances in the body. Another herbs, which provided the impetus for the creation of Nature's Sunshine Products, capsicum, has also been beneficial in healing ulcers.
The base of the stomach is separated from the beginning of the small intestines (duodenum) by the pyloric sphincter. This valve controls the release of the now acidified contents of the stomach into the alkaline small intestines.
The small intestines are where the majority of nutrient absorption takes place. This twenty-foot long organ is alkaline. Think of the inside surface of the small intestines. It should vaguely resemble shag carpet. The total absorptive surface area of the small intestines is comparable to a tennis court. Each shaggy thread, or villus, has a very thin surface. Immediately under the surface is a dense capillary bed. It is through the thin surface membrane and into the bloodstream via the capillary bed that nutrients are absorbed and transported throughout the body. Poor diet choices (white flour, milk, cheese, cheap chocolate, etc.) clog up the surfaces of the villi preventing the movement of nutrients into the bloodstream.
To unclog the surface of the villi one must increase the fibre and water in the diet. Fibre is nature's scouring pad, and all scouring pads need water. Whole grains, vegetables with the skins on, fruit (depending on the climate), nuts and seeds, and lentils and legumes are good ways to increase fibre in one's diet. Adequate fluid, taken between meals, is important to help loosen and wash away any 'gunk'. Supplemental fibre can be taken in the form of Loclo or Psyllium Hulls. Psyllium seed is especially good if there is an irritation in the intestinal tract.
People with conditions like celiac disease, Crohn's disease, and other intestinal disorders have flattened villi. Their small intestines look like linoleum instead of shag carpet. This seriously reduces the absorptive surface area (to a surface of approximately six inches wide and twenty-five feet long) and can lead to being undernourished in spite of seemingly adequate calories being taken in. This problem is correctable with diet (Food and the Gut Reaction, Elaine Gottschall), nutritional supplements, and stress coaching. Two of the most common offending food groups for this problem are soy and gluten bearing foods (wheat, oats, rye, barley, spelt, etc.). Two herbal formulas that were specifically designed for intestinal problems are CLT-X and UC3-J. These are excellent combinations that I have used with many clients for problems ranging from intestinal bloating, constipation, and diarrhoea to ulcerative colitis. Sometimes the addition of extra slippery elm is warranted also.
I have had especially good results in using slippery elm in bulk. Up to ¼ cup, mixed with warm water and a little honey or molasses to make a 'hot cereal', taken before each meal, has led to some wonderful healing and has promoted weight gain in people who were wasting.
The Essential Liquid Minerals provide easily assimilated trace minerals that are critical to the functioning of every body system.
The large intestine or colon is short, being only about five feet long. Its main purpose is to absorb fluid and mineral salts from the very soupy stuff (chyme) that is moving through the intestinal tract to make a semi-solid fecal mass. As with the esophagus and small intestines, the contents of the bowel are propelled along by peristalsis. If the bowel is moving 'stuff' along too slowly absorption of some of the toxic waste takes place. Your body didn't want to deal with this toxicity in the first place. That's why it made to the bowel without being absorbed previously. To absorb it now only puts an added strain on the liver, kidneys, and skin to eliminate it.
Fibre is a stimulant for the gastrointestinal tract. The entire gi tract function is largely dependent on how full it is. Think of fibre like feather tickling the gi tract. The more the tract gets tickled, the more it is stimulated to have a healthy peristalsis. Fibre is found only in plant-source foods that have not been refined. There is no fibre in dairy products, meat, or white flour. Where there is chronic diarrhoea fibre might be the right answer. Diarrhoea is sometimes the result of chyme moving through the intestinal tract too quickly, or from a blockage that will only allow fluids past. When diarrhoea is not the result of an infection like the flu, bulking the chyme up with fibre (not bran which may irritate an already cranky gi tract) may actually slow down the movement of the fluid and allow the body to assimilate the fluid and nutrients it should from the chyme.
Constipation can be the result of many things. We often eat similarly to the way our parents ate. If we were taught to eat a low fibre diet (lots of refined and packaged foods, high dairy consumption, lots of meat) we will be as constipated as our parents were. If we change our eating habits and include more vegetables we will almost always improve the functioning of the bowel. I teach my clients and students that their daily intake of vegetables should be equal to one serving the size of their closed fist for every twenty-five pounds they weigh. This provides large amounts of fibre and minerals necessary for improved bowel function. For herbal support to correct constipation, LB-X or LBS II are good choices. Daily activities such as walking and jogging are very stimulating to the bowel and can often get the bowel moving when other remedies fail.
Diarrhoea can certainly be the result of allergies, poor food choices, and bad nerves, but as often as not, it is the result of a blockage in the bowel. When there is a narrowed spot in the bowel, or when some chyme has dried out and gotten lodged where it doesn't belong, a blockage can form. Often the only thing that can get around a blockage is fluid. This will often manifest as constipation alternating with diarrhoea. This is not a good time to use fibre or bowel stimulants. This is where an enema with abdominal massage (rolling a tennis ball around on the abdomen in the direction of movement of the large intestine) should be used to dislodge the blockage and get it moving.
There is plenty of debate about what constitutes a good bowel movement and healthy bowel function. Most holistic people are agreed that there should optimally be one bowel movement for each meal, and that food should take between 14 and 20 hours to pass through the system. The colour will depend on the foods eaten. Beets may 'bleed' red colour into the feces, while a diet high in green vegetables or chlorophyll will produce green bowel movements. Should they sink or float? Sinking and floating are dependent on fat, fibre, and fluid content. Once again, however, all are agreed that bowel movements should be easy to pass and should be of a semi-soft consistency and that 'nature's call' should be heeded.
There are specific foods can be used therapeutically to enhance the digestive process. Bitter greens (think of the wonderful little interesting leafy 'lettuces' that are so popular) are a marvellous stimulant for digestive juices. These need to be well chewed. Raw vegetables are made up largely of cellulose, virtually plant plastic, for which humans do not have a digestive enzyme. The only way we derive nutrition from raw foods is to chew them until they are liquid, which is how thoroughly we should chew all of our foods anyway. These 'bitter greens' do stimulate the production of a myriad of digestive enzymes.
The small and large intestines need fibre. As mentioned earlier, fibre 'tickles' the intestines into behaving with their peristaltic action. Fibre serves added benefits like preventing colon cancer and reducing cholesterol. It is my opinion that fibre should be in the form of whole foods like potatoes with the skin, cucumbers with the skin, whole grains, and nuts and seeds. I feel it is unwise to unbalance a food by fracturing it, as is done with wheat and bran, and oats and bran. Nature's Sunshine Products TNT and Loclo are excellent sources of fibre.
The bowel has a preference for specific nutrition also. Its favourite mineral is magnesium. Calcium taken alone or not in the proper balance with magnesium will lead to constipation. To promote bowel function, magnesium is a must. Too much magnesium can cause diarrhoea. Foods that provide magnesium are yellow in colour. This list includes corn (well chewed) and all yellow and orange squashes. Sometimes, Magnesium Complex is the best answer to correct constipation.
There has been a lot of discussion of the years concerning food combining. It is important to remember that an eating plan that works in a warm climate (California, Arizona, Hawaii, Florida) is not appropriate for colder climates like Montana and Canada. The general principles of food combining are protein rich foods may only be eating with non-starchy vegetables. Starchy vegetables and foods may only be combined with non-starchy vegetables. Protein foods should never be eaten with starches of any kind. Fruit should always be eaten alone because of its very high carbohydrate content. This eating plan may not be truly necessary for all people, however, for those with digestive problems it can certainly be a blessing. Starches require an alkaline medium for thorough digestion. Protein requires an acidic environment. The enzymes that are present when starches are being digested inhibit the enzymes that are needed for protein digestion. So, if there are digestive problems, ranging from intestinal gas to cramping, food combining might be the easiest answer.
There are so many everyday kinds of lifestyle habits that one can engage in to enhance and even improve digestive function that minor irritations and annoyances can often be prevented.