Part 2 Summer Wellness: Nutrition and Digestion
Because the Summer is associated with fire element and the digestive organs in many natural health paradigms, I thought I would briefly explain the anatomy and physiology of digestion We are a gut system; we actually developed around our guts and in order to thrive we must take in nutrients from our environment, digest, assimilate and then get rid of toxins. Digestion is therefore a crucial component of overall health and vitality. Due to our cultural paradigm surrounding what a healthy body looks like and our needs as humans to be accepted, connected to and liked by others many peoples nutrition and digestion has become more about fat loss, control and self-hate versus nourishment. This mentality often leads to additional stress; fear shame and guilt sorounding food consumption. To find out more check out my article on stress here.
The stomach is a muscular sac that is located on the left side of the abdominal cavity, just below the diaphragm and beside the liver (this will be important when we discuss the importance of deep diaphragmatic breathing below). The stomach contains hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes that continue the digestion of food that began in the mouth via the teeth and salivary glands. Did you know saliva plays an important role in digestion? this is why when you are stressed your mouth gets dry as digestion is not a life or death matter. The Stomach turns the chewed up food into a paste called Cyme. The pyloric sphincter is a band of smooth muscle at the junction between the stomach and the small intestine. It plays an important role in digestion, where it acts as a valve to control the flow of partially digested food from the stomach to the small intestine.
The duodenum is the first and shortest segment of the small intestine. It plays a vital role in the chemical digestion of chyme in preparation for absorption. Many chemical secretions from the pancreas, liver and gallbladder mix with the chyme here to facilitate digestion. By the time food leaves the small intestine, around 90% of all nutrients have been extracted from the food that entered it.
The pancreas is a large gland located just behind and bellow to the stomach. The pancreas secretes digestive enzymes into the small intestine to complete the chemical digestion of food. In the fight or flight (stress) response the pancreas surpasses insulin secretion and increases glucagon secretion which raises the blood sugar in order to prepare for fighting or getting the hell out of the way.
The liver has many different functions in the body, but the main function of the liver in digestion is the production of bile and its secretion into the small intestine. The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ located just behind to the liver. The gallbladder is used to store and recycle excess bile from the small intestine so that it can be reused for the digestion of subsequent meals.
The large intestine is a long, thick tube about 2 ½ inches in diameter and about 5 feet long. The large intestine absorbs water and contains many symbiotic bacteria that aid in the breaking down of wastes to extract some small amounts of nutrients. Feces in the large intestine exit the body through the anal canal.
Once food has been reduced to its building blocks, it is ready for the body to absorb. Absorption begins in the stomach with simple molecules like water and alcohol being absorbed directly into the bloodstream. Most absorption takes place in the walls of the small intestine, which are densely folded to maximize the surface area in contact with digested food. Blood and lymphatic vessels in the intestinal wall pick up the molecules and carry them to the rest of the body. The large intestine is also involved in the absorption of water and some vitamins.
Bacteria in the GI tract, also called gut flora or microbiome, help with digestion and are a crucial part of our immune system. The health of the micro biome helps regulates overall inflammation in your body by inhibiting the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines while promoting anti-inflammatory cytokines. This gut flora is sensitive to antibiotics, unfamiliar organisms (travel) parasites, laxatives, heavy metals, surgeries, and diet. It has also been shown that stress plays a huge role in the health of the microbiome.
Enteric Nervous System (The second brain)
Parts of the nervous and circulatory systems also play roles in the digestive process. Together, a combination of nerves, hormones, bacteria, blood, and the organs of the digestive system completes the complex task of digesting the foods and liquids a person consumes each day. For this reason in addition to high quality foods, stress levels, mindset and environment play a huge role in proper digestion.
Gut feelings are highly regarded as a source of intuitive knowing and insight. There are many sayings such as “trust your gut” and “gut instinct” and even scientists are starting to point to the gut as our “second brain.” The Enteric nervous system is a network of neurons and chemicals in the GI that sense and control events in other parts of the body.
According to Michael Gershon, M.D. in his book, The Second Brain, in addition to an extensive network of neurons, the entire digestive tract is also lined with cells that produce and receive a variety of neuropeptides and neurochemicals including serotonin and dopamine.
In his book: When The Body Says No. The Cost Of Hidden Stress, Dr Gabor Mate discusses “psychoendoneuroimmunology” (PENI),which is the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of the human body. He has this to say about the gut:
“The gut, or intestinal tract, is much more than an organ of digestion. It is a sensory apparatus with a nervous system of its own, intimately connected to the brain’s emotional centres. Gut feelings, pleasant or unpleasant, are part of the body’s normal response to the world-they help us to interpret what is happening around us and inform us whether we are safe or in danger. The gut secretes its own neurotransmitters and is influenced by the body’s hormonal system. The gut also forms an important part of the body’s barrier against noxious substances and plays a major role in immune defense. Its functioning is inseparable from the psychological processing that each moment gauges and reacts to the stimuli presented to us by the environment. The ability of gut tissue to maintain its integrity is heavily influenced by psychological factors, and its resistance to inflammation and even to malignant change is also vulnerable to emotional stress”
This is why sitting down to eat, enjoying food and taking pleasure from eating is important. In a society where we are so rigid about the food we eat, body weight, calories consumed, detoxification and fad diets, the stress we place around meal time and food consumption is also limiting our potential for pleasure, nourishment and probably playing a huge role in many of the digestive issues that have surfaced today. In a study performed by Crum et al. ( 2011) called Mind Over Milkshakes, it was discovered that how a person feels about what they are eating; indulgence versus sensibility, may have just as much effect of how the body responds as the actual caloric density and nutrition value.
In addition the high stress, multitasking, be all things to all people, control your temper, and “I can do it all” mentality also sympathetically tunes the nervous system, silencing the bodies intuition (guts) leading to burn out and possibly inflammation.
In addition to conscious eating, self-care practices such as setting boundaries, restorative yoga, pranayama and Meditation and guided relaxation practices are also important component of our summer wellness practices. We will discuss these further in the upcoming weeks.
The Functional Medicine Four R Model of digestive health
There are many chronic illnesses that result from inflammatory digestive issues caused from stress, food sensitivities, processed foods, imbalanced gut flora, over use of antibiotics and NSAID’s and psycho-emotional issues. In Functional Medicine model, healing the gut is one of the core solutions for preventing many of these chronic illnesses.
According to Dr Aviva Rom and many other doctors, naturopaths and nutrition experts one of the most common sources of inflammation that eventually leads to autoimmune conditions is intestinal hyperpermeability, or “leaky gut” (terrible name I know).
The main job of the intestinal mucosa (the lining of the intestine) is to allow nutrients from our food to pass into the submucosa where it can be assimilated, while keeping potentially harmful proteins from our food and fragments of bacteria out of the submucosa where they can trigger inflammatory and immune reactions. Over time, persistent exposure of the submucosa to inflammatory and immune triggers causes the body to produce antibodies, special proteins that recognize and fight viruses and bacteria. These antibodies can fail to recognize “self” from “non-self” and attack your body tissue, which Dr Mate also discusses in his book and correlates to the psychology of personal boundaries.
The Functional Medicine Institute recommends the Four R Program for healing the gut. Unlike popping a pill, these protocols take time (usually a few months), consistency and commitment to be successful. Healing the gut has a tremendous effect on health and vitality however.
- Remove: Remove/Reduce the common allergy-producing foods which may include gluten and dairy products. I recommend speaking with your medical doctor or Naturopath about allergy/sensitivity testing to get the specifics on what your individual triggers are. The ultimate goal is to have a robust digestive system and therefore the idea is to not have to totally eliminate the above foods forever (unless of course you have an actual allergy to them). An elimination diet is often recommended in the removal phase. It consists of low allergy foods such as rice-based products, legumes, fruits, vegetables, fish and poultry for at least 2 weeks. It is also recommended that exposure to toxic chemicals are removed for this phase. See the Spring Wellness blog on detoxification for more information.
- Replace: Work with your doctor or naturopath to determine what and if specific digestive enzymes are appropriate. It is also recommend to increase fiber to assist with the digestive and elimination process.
- Reinoculate: In order to improve intestinal immune function and thereby improve whole body function add in a good quality probiotic to restore your gut flora. Fermented foods such as miso, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kefir can also be helpful. The most well-researched probiotics are specific strains of acidophilus and bifidus bacteria that are normal inhabitants of a healthy intestinal tract.
- Repair: For this phase supplements are recommended to heal the intestinal lining and support growth. This phase may take many months.These supplements may include:
- L-Glutamine: the most abundant amino acid in the body. While the body can normally make enough glutamine, certain illnesses, prolonged stress, injury, infections and surgeries can lower glutamine levels and therefore supplementing may be helpful. Most glutamine is stored in muscles and it is important for removing excess ammonia (a common waste product in the body). It also helps your immune system function and appears to be needed for normal brain function and digestion
- Omega 3 EPA/ DHA/ fish oil: Essential Fatty Acids are nutritional cornerstones of health and wellness. There are two major families of fats are comprised under this designation, omegas 3 and 6. They are deemed “essential” because we need them for proper health however our bodies do not produce them and therefore we must get them from our diets and or supplementation. The two main omega 3’s: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) contribute to cardiovascular health, brain health, digestion, joint mobility, eye health, healthy skin and hair, and healthy immune response
- Zinc: Zinc is an essential mineral for the production of digestive enzymes and is also a crucial mineral for the repair and growth of intestinal tissue, as well as the production of digestive bile and secretions of both the liver and pancreas.
- Tumeric, aloe vera and licorice are also safe and effective herbs for healing the digestive system.
- This list is not exhaustive or one size fits all. Again, I recommend working with a professional who will consider history, health complaints, constitution and track progress accordingly.
Not included in the original “Four R” model but an important fifth step is the Rebalance phase. This phase is the longest and most sustainable and includes incorporating lifestyle changes that will support the restorative process including, yoga, movement, meditation, relaxation, talk therapy, breath work and other tools to restore the body, mind and spirit and manage stress.
Summer Nutrition Recommendations
- Especially in the summer months Pitta aggravation may lead to digestive inflammation, heartburn, skin irritations, arthritis, seasonal allergies, dryness and irritability. Here are some simple recomendations
- Take a few minutes prior to eating to check in, you may wish to contemplate where the food is coming from or practice gratitude for the nourishment you are about to receive, shifting your mind set from stress, guilt and shame to relaxation and contentment.
- Avoid eating in a hurry or in your car.
- Chew food at least 20 times before swallowing to allow saliva to begin the digestive process.
- Add spice to your food such as ginger or cumin to increase digestive fire or,
- Herbs such as mint, fennel, coriander, fenugreek, rosemary, basil, parsley, and cilantro may be used to pacify pitta and calm digestion.
- Cooking foods makes it easier for the body to digest, but if digestive fire is robust raw foods may be appropriate.
- Try adding some fresh squeezed juice to your diet to increase polyphenols and support increased energy.
- You can also add many different greens like wheatgrass, spinach and kale to a smoothie to create a delicious cooling treat that unlike juice is also high in fiber.
- In summer, indigestion can easily occur, so a light and less-greasy diet is strongly recommended.
- Introduce some cooling/ yin foods into your diet. According to TCM and Ayurveda food with cool properties can clear heat, reduce toxins, and generate body fluids. In general, cooling foods tend towards the green end of the spectrum – lettuce, cucumbers, celery and watercress are some of the coolest though most vegetables are considered cooling. Fish and seafood are also cooling, while most meats are warming.
- Eat at regular times with the largest meal being lunch.
- Take a light walk after meals and avoid sitting for prolonged periods after eating.
- Additionally, become more conscientious about what you expose yourself to physically, emotionally and mentally aka conscious consumption. Everybody’s body is unique and has adapted based on its history, environment, and genetics. There is never a one size fits all solution to health and well-being. Keeping a food journal may be useful in developing awareness around how different foods effect your moods, digestion and energy levels.
- Fruit including: watermelon, apricot, cantaloupe, melon, lemon, peach, orange and berries, apples, pears and tropical fruit
- Vegetables including: asparagus, sprouts, bamboo, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, cucumber, snow peas, spinach, lettuce, summer squash, watercress, seaweed
- Beans and Lentles
- Herbs including: Cilantro, mint, parsley, dill, oregano and rosemay
- Fish and Lean Poultry