“How’s your digestion?” Without fail, this is a question I get asked whenever I see a healthcare provider who takes a more holistic approach to things. My automatic response is always, “It’s good.” And then we move on.
However, because I also work at a traditional Chinese medicine clinic, I hear this question asked of other people several times a day. For reasons I cannot explain, I’ve lately started thinking about both the question and my automated answer in a different way. What exactly is the importance of asking it? And is my digestion really good, like I keep saying it is?
I mean, when we truly reflect on our digestion (which I’m sure happens almost never), how do we even know if it’s good or not? I’m a strong believer that no question needs to go unanswered, so I couldn’t wait to get home to my self-health resources to do a little investigating. I’m kind of nerdy that way. 😉
Health Is Simple, Disease Is Complicated by Dr. James Forleo is a fantastic place to find easy-to-understand answers for questions about our complex bodies. So I made this book my starting point. Digestion and elimination are two different body systems, Forleo explains, but they are linked to one another by a 40-foot passageway known as the digestive tube. It starts where food goes in and ends where waste comes out. What happens along the way determines whether or not you have good digestion.
It all starts in your mouth. As your saliva mixes with the food you eat, it’s beginning the process of digesting the carbohydrates and starches. Forleo states that “70 percent of the digestion of starches and over 50 percent of digestion of carbohydrates occurs in the mouth.” This is why learning to chew like a pro is a real victory for good digestion.
Once you swallow your food, the next stop is your stomach. This acidic environment starts breaking down any fats and proteins in your meal. From there it goes to the digestive juices in your upper small intestines, where it breaks down further. Onward and downward—that’s a saying, right?—once the food makes it to the middle of your small intestines, the nutrients begin their quest throughout your body via your blood and lymph systems.
Eventually what is left of the digested food finds its way to the elimination section of the 40-foot passageway. Elimination begins in the last portion of your small intestines, then moves through your large intestines, and finally arrives at your colon. Here is how Forleo eloquently explains it:
“The progression of food through the entire digestive and eliminative tube is designed to be a coordinated affair, orchestrated by reflexes from the nerve system to produce continuous movement.”
When I got to this next part in the book, I realized I may not have any bragging rights when it comes to my digestion. I wouldn’t say it’s lousy, but it doesn’t always look like Forleo says it should.
The foods you eat should be in your digestive tube for about 24 hours. That means all of the meals you ate yesterday. Ideally, when you eat your breakfast this morning, yesterday’s breakfast is eliminated from your system to make room. The lunch you ate yesterday makes its way out after you eat lunch today. And so on and so forth. (This seems like the logical time to remind yourself of the telltale signs of normal, healthy poop. The grand finale of sorts.)
There you have it. One meal in, one meal out. That’s what good digestion looks like. If you’re questioning the timing of things in your own system, Forleo suggests you eat a nice serving of beautiful, vibrant beets during one of your meals and then start paying attention to when that beautiful, vibrant bowel movement makes an appearance. If your digestion is functioning flawlessly, it should be 24 hours later. Faster than that and your body may not have enough time to take advantage of the nutrients the meal provided. Too slow and you may be taking in harmful waste elements in addition to the nutrients.
But what causes problems within your digestive and elimination systems? Quite honestly, there are lots of things that can hamper the process. After all, this is a sophisticated sequence of events involving alkaline and acid environments, sphincters and glands, enzymes and hormones, muscles and villi. But let’s talk about a couple of the more common problems.
Maria Atwood shares a common cause of constipation (when things are moving too slow) in her blog post “No Bile, No Poop! Truer Words Were Never Spoken.” As you can guess by the title, bile plays a crucial role in digesting food (especially fats) and keeping things moving to the ultimate destination—that is, nutrient dispersal and waste elimination.
If you deal with constipation, you may find her article helpful. Atwood offers practical information about improving your bile production to keep your digestion moving smoothly. By avoiding certain things (sugar and processed foods) and increasing others (berries and beets), you’ll be helping the cause. And your body will thank you by adding in some supplements she recommends, in particular Cholacol from Standard Process
On the other extreme of digestive functioning, diarrhea, the causes are many. A virus or bad bacteria can lead to loose, watery stools. Eating foods that you or your digestive tract just cannot handle very well—like spicy foods, for example—can have the same effect. Certain medications also list diarrhea as a side effect. It seems to me that diarrhea is the body’s way of getting something that doesn’t belong out of there as quickly as possible.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, acute diarrhea, which usually lasts a day or two, typically resolves itself without the need for intervention. Anything more than that and it becomes either persistent (lasting two to four weeks) or chronic (lasting more than four weeks). Once you’ve reached the latter two classifications, it’s a good idea to reach out to your healthcare provider to help determine the cause.
Here are some basic tips Forleo shares for good digestion:
- Chew your food thoroughly—40 to 50 times per bite.
- Don’t drink water with your meals as it dilutes your digestive juices.
- Eat small meals in calm surroundings. (Yes, stress can even impact your digestion.)
- Take steps to ensure your small intestine, gallbladder, liver, and pancreas are functioning well. Sometimes a flush or cleanse can be beneficial.
Once again, my self-health education has led me to a better understanding of how my body functions and the signals it gives me to keep it working to its full potential. The next time I’m asked how my digestion is, I’ll be able to answer with confidence.