“You are what you eat.” We’ve all heard it. And it is, generally, good healthful advice. The problem is that it’s not quite true. What you eat (ingest) is simply the beginning of the story.
Let’s talk nutrition. Nutrition, by definition, is a six-phase process. The phases are: ingestion, digestion, absorption, transport, assimilation, and excretion. If we assume the first phase of nutrition is the only phase, we are sorely mistaken and our health may suffer for it.
1) Ingestion – what you eat or consume. This is often mistaken as the entire field of “Nutrition” (i.e. “eat this and you will be healthy”). One of the best things about this phase is that it is controlled by your choices. You control what you eat (or what your children eat) so you have the power to decide what the building blocks for the rest of the nutritional process will be.
2) Digestion – the mechanical and chemical breakdown of what you eat. This is where the magic happens. Digestion begins in the mouth (with your teeth and enzyme-containing saliva) and continues in the stomach and small intestine. Some important supportive roles are played by the liver & gallbladder (bile production and release) as well as the pancreas (your enzyme powerhouse). We’ll talk more about digestion in another post – stay tuned!
3) Absorption – broken-down food molecules pass through the gut wall and into the bloodstream. For our purposes, let’s simplify the anatomy and envision the gastro-intestinal tract as as one long tube – from mouth to anus. This tube has a protective barrier (the gut wall) separating the GI tract and food particles from the “inside” of the body and the bloodstream. (Yes, of course, the gut is inside the body. Work with me, here). Most nutrients and other substances are absorbed in the beginning portion of the small intestine. By this time, the food and drink we have consumed have been digested into tiny molecules. These molecules are able to pass through our gut wall and into the bloodstream (by way of specific transport processes).
4) Transport – We are getting to the cellular level now. This phase is the movement of nutritive materials through the body’s membranes and cell walls. This is like your body’s microscopic nutrient delivery system.
5) Assimilation – the process of incorporating nutritive materials into living tissues on a cellular level (cells are the building blocks of tissues which are the building blocks of our organs).
6) Excretion – discharging waste matter from cells, tissues, and the body. It’s important to note that while we excrete waste via feces and urine, our cells also create waste products which must be removed for proper function and overall health.
When we make long-term, poor dietary choices, this places stress on our digestive system. Our bodies are always striving towards health (isn’t that incredible?) – but our tissues have limits. Once the dietary stress is too great, our digestive processes will be challenged. We may start experiencing symptoms of digestive stress including: gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, gastric reflux, headache, fatigue, anxiety, irritability, and depression. These symptoms are signals that our body cannot meet the stress it is under. If this cry for help goes unanswered, or is muted or muffled by symptom-relieving remedies, our digestion will continue to suffer, leading to inflammation in our gut. This inflammation, left unaddressed, leads to damage and increased permeability of the gut wall. This means that food particles that aren’t fully digested make it farther into our GI tract than they’re supposed to – and eventually they may “leak” into the bloodstream though the damaged gut barrier. This is what is commonly referred to as “leaky gut” and it is a major player in systemic inflammation and many of the chronic diseases that plague our society.
In an ideal world, a healthy diet would be enough. But with chronic disease at epidemic levels and a food system that is built on mass production, factory farms, and increasing shelf-life (as well as radiated, genetically modified, and pesticide & chemical-laden whole foods), I think we could all benefit by addressing the digestive piece of our health puzzles. The far reaching effects of proper digestion cannot be underestimated. Nourish your body with healthy foods and make sure you’re able to properly digest them (put those nutrients to good use!). After all, our motto is: “You are what you digest!”
*Want to get your gut in check? There are many natural and holistic ways to assess and address digestion, but our favorite and most successful clinical approach has been using high quality, case-specific digestive enzyme formulations (complete with supportive herbs, minerals, and vitamins). You can read more about our Internal Health Specialist training through the Loomis Institute and the enzyme supplementation used in our practice here: www.loomisinstitute.com