Hi friends! Tis Friday! <3 I say that, but let’s be real here…I’m a stay at home mom. There are no Fridays! Haha 🙂 Not complaining, calm down.
So I want to dive in to a subject that is so important in the world of health and nutrition. It’s so huge that it really is THE foundation of your health and it’s something that isn’t really given the credit and attention it needs in the medical field. I’m talking about digestion. I chose to break this up into four parts to really dive in to each phase of digestion without it becoming overwhelming…because when you start talking in detail about anything in the body, I know it can become too much fairly quickly.
When we think about digestion, we all may have different ideas of what it is…some might think just of the food in the stomach, some might go a little more south to things like bowel movements. The truth is that it’s a larger process and pathway. Digestion is defined as the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food. So yes both the stomach and bowel movements are part of digestion, but again, it’s bigger than that.
Digestion is a north to south process, and it actually starts in the brain. Yes, seriously. So for this first segment of Digestion, we will discuss the roles of the brain and the mouth.
(This is actually a picture of part of a powerpoint slide from my studies. I tried to draw it…but let’s just say it didn’t work. So you’re welcome for this.)
When everything is working properly, this is what happens…
The sight or smell, or sometimes even thought, of food will trigger your salivary glands to start producing saliva. You’ve experienced this before, probably without realizing what was happening. This is when your mouth starts watering. This is a necessary function in digestion because your saliva, while mostly water, also has special little enzymes that will start the chemical breakdown of the food you’re about to eat.
The next step to digestion is when you actually put the food in your mouth. The saliva mixes with the food as you chew it in preparation to swallow. The fancy word for chewing is mastication, and that process begins the physical breakdown of your food. So right there in your mouth, you have already begun breaking down your food both chemically and physically. This is huge because the ultimate goal of digestion is to reduce food to molecules so small that the nutrients can be absorbed and used by the cells. So you continue to chew and mash up your food while it’s mixing with the saliva and becoming this gross ball of mush. That ball is called a bolus and you eventually swallow that and it’s thrown down the throat into the esophagus. We will stop there.
Sounds easy enough, right? Well there are a lot of things that can go wrong in this process, and since digestion is all connected in its steps, a lot of steps further down the pathway can be affected.
So let’s discuss what can go wrong and how to correct/prevent it.
One of the biggest problems, especially in today’s high stress/fast paced society, is eating on the run or eating under some kind of pressure, like career stress. How can this possibly affect my digestion? I’m glad you asked.
This might get a little involved, but stay with me. There are two different “states” we can be in. If you think back to your school days, likely a psychology class, you might remember learning a bit about “fight or flight”. This is known as a sympathetic state and goes way back to our ancestors where the body flips over to survival mode. You can think of it like a man suddenly being chased through a field by an angry ox. The man is literally running for his life and his body is doing everything in its power to flip things around and provide enough energy to carry his legs faster and farther in order to survive. It’s a big deal. However, it’s a very high stress state and things internally aren’t working ideally during this time. So while we are no longer being chased by oxen, we have other stresses like deadlines and children and catastrophes and traffic jams, etc. This stress changes our ability to digest, starting in the brain. There’s another state called the parasympathetic state. Just like the sympathetic has a catchy little descriptive phrase (“fight or flight”), the parasympathetic has one too…we call it “rest and digest”.
The parasympathetic state is the state you NEED to be in to properly begin this digestive process. A state of calm, rest, at peace. Even if it’s just temporary. Things like eating in the car during a traffic jam, or shoving food in your mouth on a 15 minute lunch break, eating right after a fight with your spouse, trying to grab a bite while racing the clock for a deadline, etc. These events will impede your ability to digest your food because the saliva won’t be properly released, and other things further south in this pathway will also be affected. So how can you get to the parasympathetic state, even in today’s high stress world?
Do your absolute best to relax before eating. I totally understand that you may very well be on some kind of time crunch, but you can take about 60 seconds to get in a few deep breaths, calm your heart rate and blood pressure, think about the food you’re about to eat with gratitude, and push out negative thoughts and stress for this time.
Make time to dedicate to your meal. Even if that time is carved out for you by way of a lunch break at work, use the time wisely to unwind a little and set yourself up for digestive success. Don’t work through lunch. Give yourself the necessary time to take care of your health by eating in an ideal state.
Let’s talk about chewing! How many times do you think you actually chew each bite of food before swallowing? 5? 10?
This is a big problem as well and it fits right in with the high stress/fast paced society because if you’re trying to eat on a time crunch, you’re going to do all you can to eat as much as you can in a tiny amount of time. I get that. But it’s not beneficial.
If you don’t chew your food a good amount of time, which is a good 20-30 times or 30 seconds per bite, the food could very well not physically break down enough and will place a burden on the stomach to try to do the work the mouth should have as well as its own job. Also the food in your mouth needs to be there long enough to send a signal to the brain that will trigger more digestive processes further south, as well as more saliva. So if you’re chewing your food only a few times, it can be causing problems anywhere in your digestive process.
An example of that is the job of your saliva. One of the enzymes in saliva is called salivary amylase and its job is to begin the breakdown of starches. If that doesn’t happen, then the pancreatic amylase (an enzyme secreted by the pancreas later) can’t complete the breakdown of the starch, but that starch still has to move along the pathway of digestion. That means that undigested starch will then move into the colon and that will feed “bad” bacteria there. See how it’s all connected?
So be sure to put the time in to properly chew your food. Put your fork down in between bites to help. Count if you have to. It could be the necessary simple change in your digestion.
Coming up next in Part 2, we will move on to all the happenings of the stomach.
In good health,