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The Role Of Digestion Part Two: The Post-Processing End of It

The Role Of Digestion Part Two The Post-Processing End of ItIn the last post about digestion, we talked about the parts of the digestive system and we realized how big a role it really plays in our weight gain or loss. Now let’s discuss what happens during and after digestion.

Healthy digestion time is 12-24 hours, such that you should be passing stool 1-3 times per day. When your digestion time becomes longer than 24 hours, several unwanted events occur in your colon.

  • Bile will concentrate and become increasingly acidic until it irritates the lining of your colon.
  • You have a buildup of bad bacteria which produce toxins that make their way into your bloodstream.
  • Metabolized estrogenic compounds ready for passing in your stool are reabsorbed back into your blood
  • There is also some research which suggests these metabolized estrogenic compounds are actually ‘re-activated’ by the bad bacteria, meaning your body’s estrogen levels are increased.
  • Not only does estrogen increase your body’s propensity to store fat, it is also closely linked with uterine and breast cancer.

An additional complication, increasingly common in westernized regions like the USA and Western Europe is the hiatus hernia, where a portion of the stomach is forced upwards through a small opening in your diaphragm which your esophagus passes through.

It is the result of excessive straining during defecation, primarily because of low fiber content in your diet. In rural African areas, where the diet is very high in fiber, the hiatus hernia is very rare.

How to Decrease Digestion Time & Increase Regularity

If you suffer from constipation or you are not passing stool regularly, then these suggestions will help:

  • Eat foods which promote ‘good’ gut bacteria (prebiotics and probiotics, more on that below)
  • Eat more foods high in fiber (fruits and vegetables are excellent sources)
  • Eat less processed food
  • Drink more water
  • Exercise more
  • Sleep more
  • Manage your stress
  • Use the bathroom immediately when you have the urge, don’t hold it in.

 Prebiotics and Probiotics

Prebiotics and probiotics deserve a mention because they are essential to good digestion (and many, many other good health benefits).

Prebiotics. Prebiotics, also known as a type of ‘functional food’ are non-digestible food components which promote the growth and activity of ‘good’ bacteria in your digestive system.

The most common prebiotics are many of the different kinds of dietary fiber but the best known and most effective prebiotic is soluble fiber because it creates an environment in your colon ideal for the proliferation of ‘good’ bacteria. We’ll talk more about fiber later, including good sources.

Probiotics. Probiotics are living microorganisms, most typically bacteria, which contribute to good health in your body. Examples of foods containing probiotics are:

  • Yogurt containing live cultures (some do not)
  • Buttermilk and kefir: fermented milk products
  • Miso and soy: fermented soy products
  • Sauerkraut: fermented cabbage
  • Kim Chi: spicy Korean side dish of fermented cabbage and soy bean sprouts
  • Brewer’s yeast: a byproduct of beer making

Most often, the probiotic bacteria come from two groups:

  1. Lactobacillus or
  2. Bifidobacterium.

Within each of these 2 groups, there are different species (for example, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidus are the 2 most common probiotic species found in yogurt), and within each species, different strains. It’s important to note that different strains of the same species will not have the same health effects.

Yeasts. Not all probiotics are bacteria. There are also some common probiotics that are yeasts, like Saccharomyces boulardii which grows on the skin of lychees and mangosteens.

The Health Benefits of Probiotics:

  • Reduce digestion time
  • Considerably improve bowel function and regularity
  • Manufacture B vitamins such as:
    • Biotin
    • Niacin (B3)
    • Pyridoxine (B6) and
    • Folic acid (B9) is of particular importance for weight loss, so we’ll give it special attention soon (more on the importance of B vitamins below)
  • Manufacture vitamin A
  • Improve absorption of nutrients
  • Stimulate your body’s production of immune-boosting substances like IgA (immunoglobulin antibodies)
  • Proven anti-cancer properties
  • Inhibit the growth of ‘bad’ bacteria, viruses, fungi and yeasts including ‘Candida albicans’
  • Protect against ingested toxins
  • Lower your LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol levels

I hope this post has given you more information on the digestive system. In the next posts, we will talk about more ways to keep your body healthy.

The Role of Digestion in Health and Weight Loss

The Role of Digestion in Health and Weight LossI’d like to share these statistics with you:

  • In the US one-third to one-half of all adults have digestive illness.
  • After the common cold, digestive illness is the next most common reason people seek medical advice.
  • Since 1981, digestive illness medications (Zantac, Prevacid) have been at the top of the pharmaceutical best seller list.
  • The average American spends $500/year on laxatives and fiber supplements. (Elizabeth Lipski PhD, C.N.N., “Digestive Wellness”)

Poor digestion compromises your long-term health and well-being. Therefore it’s absolutely worth understanding how it works so we can get it operating at optimum efficiency through better eating choices because you cannot expect to lose weight when your internal fuel processing system is not functioning properly.

Digestion is defined as:

The organic process occurring in the digestive system where whole foodstuffs are broken down into smaller components until they are sufficiently small enough to enter the bloodstream (http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Digestion) for absorption into the cell where they are used for energy, repair, maintenance, growth, building materials and catalysts.

The health of your entire body depends on this uninterrupted passage of nutrients from the food you eat to the cells of your body. When this passage of nutrients becomes slowed or blocked OR you are consuming foods lacking the nutrients you need and similarly consuming chemicals you don’t need, then your cells are not able to function properly and health concerns, including weight problems, arise.

Let’s quickly go stage-by-stage through your digestive process. You may be surprised to hear me start not with the mouth, but with the…

Brain. Before you eat anything, the sight, smell, touch, anticipation and even sound of food preparation activates your brain to begin signaling your digestive system to get ready. Your digestive system will respond by producing saliva, digestive juices, digestive hormones and peristaltic contractions (muscular contractions which mobilize food through your digestive tract).

From this we can see the importance of taking a moment to center yourself before eating. By taking a moment to get in the mindset appropriate for enjoying a meal, your digestive system has time to prepare. It seems humans instinctively know this because around the world it is customary to pause to say “grace”, “give thanks” etc before eating.

However, when you eat on the run, it’s analogous to throwing a frozen steak on a cold pan. You’ll end up with a steak charred on the outside but still frozen in the middle, that is, the cooking process was ineffective because you did not take the time to prepare first by thawing the steak and pre-heating the pan.

Mouth. The primary function of the mouth is to liquefy food by chewing and combining with saliva. Saliva also contains a carbohydrate splitting enzyme called amylase which gets the enzymatic digestive process off to a start, however, few carbohydrates are digestible by it.

The main contribution to digestion derived from the mouth is facilitating easy and rapid digestion of the food you eat by mechanically breaking it down with your teeth, tongue and cheek muscles and thereby increasing its surface area. This increase in surface area allows more contact with the digestive juices in the following stages of digestion, which in turn results in faster, more thorough digestion.

Mother’s chiding of “Chew your food properly!” was not without merit, in fact, she was really onto something (thanks Mom). People whom habitually eat-on-the-go fall into the habit of replacing chewing with swallowing liquid to wash down un-chewed food. Large chunks of un-chewed food take longer to digest and are more difficult to move through the digestive tract so it comes as no surprise that people that don’t chew their food properly commonly complain of indigestion, gas and bloating.

On the other side of the coin, over chewing your food can digest too much of the carbohydrates and by the time you swallow, you’re sending mostly simple sugars instead of more complex sugars (monosaccharides instead of polysaccharides) to your stomach, which are immediately absorbed into your blood creating a glucose spike (more on this later). So don’t go nuts, just chew your food adequately and resist the urge to wash down huge chunks with a swig of soda.

Stomach. When you swallow, food passes from the mouth down the esophagus to the stomach. In the stomach, hydrochloric acid and an enzyme called pepsin get to work on the proteins in the food, breaking them down to amino acids. Another enzyme called lipase begins digestion of fat.

B12, an important vitamin, is absorbed through the stomach. When digestion is not functioning properly B12 absorption can be decreased which results in decreased oxygen supply to the cells, decreased energy levels and decreased metabolism, culminating in weight gain. As we age, our efficiency at absorbing B12 decreases so it is not uncommon for more elderly people to have B12 deficiencies. We’ll talk more about B12 and the other B vitamins in a later section. Food stays in the stomach for 2-4 hours before moving to the small intestine but will stay in the stomach longer if you’re under chronic stress.

Small Intestines.  In your 20-foot long small intestine food is completed digested and absorbed. There are 3 parts to your small intestine (duodenum, jejunum and ileum) and different digestion and absorption occurs in each section.

Pancreas.The pancreas is an important organ with several functions.

First it increases the pH (makes less acidic) of the partially digested food arriving from the highly acidic stomach by secreting a bicarbonate (like bi- carb soda). It also secretes several digestive enzymes for digesting fats into fatty acids and glycerol, carbohydrates into simple sugars and proteins into amino acids. Very importantly in regard to controlling your weight, the pancreas also secretes 2 hormones for regulating your blood sugar because healthy blood sugar levels are within a narrow range that your pancreas acts to maintain.

When your blood sugar is too low, it releases the hormone glucagon into the bloodstream, which signals your muscle and liver cells to release some of its stored glucose back into the bloodstream.

When your blood sugar becomes too high, the pancreas releases more insulin into your bloodstream which signals your cells to store more glucose. The excess glucose cannot be stored directly into the cell so your liver converts it to glycogen for storage in your muscles and liver. However, when your glycogen reservoirs are full (unless you’re a regular athlete, they most likely are full or very close to full at all times) your liver will convert the glucose to fatty acids for storage in your fat cells… more on this later when we discuss your liver).

In short, eating too much sugar (or foods that easily convert to simple sugars) makes you fatter. I’ll also show you how to choose low-sugar (low GI) foods later.

Liver. The largest internal organ in the body, the liver, is also one of the most important because of its multi-functional role. It manufactures 13,000 chemicals and has 2000 enzyme systems and acts to control systemic pollution by humanizing the substances you consume so they can be used, stored and excreted by the body. The liver has been identified to perform 500 separate functions, and here are the main ones:

  • Producing bile to emulsify (breakdown) fats in digestion
  • It can also convert glycogen back to glucose for release into the blood when blood glucose becomes too low.
  • Production of specific proteins for blood plasma.
  • Production of cholesterol and special proteins to help carry fats through the body (your body needs a certain amount of cholesterol).
  • Regulation of blood levels of amino acids
  • Processing of hemoglobin for use of its iron content (the liver stores iron)
  • Conversion of poisonous ammonia to urea (a byproduct of protein metabolism) for excretion in urine
  • Clearing the blood of drugs and other poisonous substances
  • Regulating blood clotting
  • Creating immunity by producing immune factors and removing bacteria from the bloodstream

And also these functions, which are of particular interest if you’re trying to lose weight:

  • Conversion of the thyroid hormone T4 to the more potent T3, a thyroid hormone responsible for increasing your metabolism
  • Conversion of growth hormone to insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which builds muscle and decreases fat (much of what most people assume is the action of growth hormone is actually contributable to IGF-1)
  • Regulation of blood sugar levels by converting glucose to glycogen for storage in the liver and muscle cells. The liver is capable of storing up to 10% of its volume in glycogen.
  • Glucose lipogenesis, which is conversion of glucose into fatty acids for storage in fat cells.

I’ll spend a bit more time on the liver, because here more than anywhere else in your digestive system, if things go wrong, one of the symptoms will be the accumulation of body fat.

In fact, research has shown a very close link between liver dysfunction and obesity.

Effects of Alcohol, Drugs, Processed Food and Other Toxins on Your Liver

One of the most vital functions of your liver is to de-pollute your body by metabolizing toxins created both internally and introduced externally (like alcohol, food pesticides and food additives). If a toxin cannot be metabolized quickly or not at all, it will be stored in your liver.

This can lead to liver toxicity over time if you regularly consume drugs (prescription and non-prescription), foods and beverages high in substances toxic to your body. Published research (International Journal of Obesity) shows liver toxicity can lead to excess fat accumulation throughout your body. Even moderately obese people test positive for liver dysfunction, so your liver may be under more stress than you think. So it makes sense to avoid consuming toxins if you want to lose weight because by doing so your liver function will improve and through better digestion and metabolism you will lose weight.

We’ll discuss in more detail later how to choose non-toxic foods.

So how can you be kind to your liver? Being kind to your liver means:

  • Drinking alcohol in moderation only (or even abstaining completely)
  • Go easy on medications like Tylenol (for a more complete list of liver damaging medications see here: http://hepcnet.net/drugsandliverdamage.html)
  • Definitely never mix alcohol with drugs known to be hard on your liver
  • Avoid foods high in chemicals like preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colors, pesticides, trans fats etc
  • Avoid foods containing high fructose corn syrup (more on HFCS later)
  • Keep your weight under control
  • Drink the occasional freshly squeezed, unsweetened fruit and vegetable juice (fresh, not bottled or canned)
  • Drink lots of clean water

Gallbladder. Stores and concentrates bile between meals, which is released into the small intestine when needed to emulsify fats, thereby making it easier for lipase (enzyme for metabolizing fat) to break them down.

The Large Intestine (Colon). After nearly all nutrients have been absorbed through your small intestine, the chyme (digested food matter) passes to your colon where water is re-absorbed into your body and stool is formed.

Stool is primarily composed of living and dead bacteria, fiber (because fiber can’t be digested by the human digestive system) and water.

If stool passes through your colon too quickly, water is not absorbed and you excrete a very watery, soft stool (diarrhea). If your stool sits too long in your colon (constipation), it becomes dry and hard and difficult to pass. The good bacteria in your colon (flora) are responsible for creating vitamins B and K, defending against dangerous microbes, making lactase for milk digestion and fermenting the dietary fiber to create short-chain fatty acids for nourishing colonic cells and keeping your colon healthy.

There are also bad bacteria in your colon which are excreted in your stool. You don’t want these bacteria hanging around too long, so a healthy digestion time is important.

This is the basic overview of the digestive system. By now it is apparent that it definitely has a major role to play in the processing of food, nutrients, and most importantly, it helps decide when you gain weight and store fat due to what you eat! The digestive system is tied inevitably to weight loss or weight gain, so if you want to lose weight, be kind to your digestive system and learn how to help it get the most out of the food you eat without compromising your weight. More on how to eat healthy on the next posts!