“Digestion: The mechanical, chemical, and enzymatic process whereby ingested food is converted into material suitable for assimilation for synthesis of tissues or liberation of energy.” (From Natural Standard dictionary)
What does this mean in layman’s terms? Digestion is simply the process of how the food you eat is broken down by enzymes and acids in your saliva and other bodily fluids from the time it enters through your lips until it is eliminated in various ways, so that your body can absorb the vitamins and other nutrients in the food.
What happens when the digestion tract isn’t working properly? The digestive system is directly related to the immune system. Your body has the unique ability to warn you that the digestion process isn’t working optimally by creating symptoms. In many cases, these symptoms have been given medical disease names such as Flatulence, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Colic, Pancreatitis, Heartburn, Reflux Disease, Lactose Intolerance, Heartburn, Constipation, Diarrhea, Migraine, Gastric Erosion, Mal-absorption, Bowel Distention, Celiac Disease, Food Allergies, Crohn's Disease, Inflamed Gall Bladder, and the list goes on and on.
What can be done to rid your body of these symptoms? There are ways to temporarily suppress these warning symptoms. For example, you can take pharmaceutical drugs or even certain supplements or herbs. However, once the temporary “fix” has worn off, it is only a matter of time before the symptoms reappear. If these symptoms are allowed to simmer in your body without the underlying problem (an unhealthy digestive tract) being addressed, more chronic—sometimes debilitating or even fatal—health indications can manifest, including Obesity, Diabetes, Fibromyalgia, Arthritis, Ulcers, Heart Disease, Depression, and even Cancer. These can also materialize with no warning symptoms. (Other factors may contribute to these disorders, but the sole focus of this article is digestion education, so we are using that perspective here.)
What causes an unhealthy digestive tract? In our fast-paced world and certainly with our western diet of chemical-laced, processed, and “fast” food, it’s no wonder that 40% of Americans suffer from indigestion. There are many lifestyle factors that can contribute to an unhealthy digestive tract, ranging from improper diet or eating habits, food sensitivities, stress, undesirable sleep patterns, dehydration, sedentary lifestyle (lack of body movement—exercise), improperly combined meals, or a combination of these or other factors. If needed, you can evaluate your individual lifestyle habits with your health care professional.
What can be done to keep the digestive tract healthy? Most importantly, we need to feed it healthy food, prepared and eaten in a healthy way, which can be confusing, since there are so many different opinions of what “healthy” is. (Please be aware that a food advertisement, whether on television, radio, magazine, news publication, the World Wide Web, endorsement, or anywhere else, is just that—an advertisement. The sole purpose of an advertisement is to sell the product. The advertisement experts are paid well to use psychological strategies to lead you to believe the product is beneficial to you, even if that could be the farthest from the truth.)
As stated by Rosemary Gladstar, author of Herbal Recipes for vibrant health, “It is not always necessary or even beneficial to follow strict dietary disciplines. Rather, follow the laws of healthy eating: Eat [organic] food as close to nature as possible, eat what’s in season, prepare it simply, chew slowly, and give thanks.” With this in mind, a suggested diet to promote healthy digestion, provided by Michael Tierra in his book, The Way of Herbs, consists of:
· Whole grains (not refined or milled, nor flour products). 20-30% of the diet.
· Protein (including lean animal protein, tofu, tempeh, and beans--not red meat, which is below). 20-30% of the diet.
· Fresh seasonal vegetables (raw or lightly cooked). 30-40% of the diet.
· Dairy, eggs, and fruits (also red meat). 5-10% of the diet.
· Fats and oils (including olive, sesame oils, and ghee). 2% of the diet.
To expand on this, it is advisable to eat organic or locally grown food. One reason for this, in addition to consuming unsafe chemicals, is that big food companies and grocery store chains are known to irradiate non-organic food. Irradiation is a process much like microwaving, which kills beneficial bacteria, phytonutrients, and enzymes that are necessary for healthy digestion of the food. Additionally, raw milk may be preferable to pasteurized, since the pasteurization process kills beneficial nutrients including lactase, the enzyme that helps to digest the milk sugar, lactose, thus possibly contributing to lactose intolerance symptoms.
Protein is very important for the digestion process. Tierra stresses that it is needed “to repair damaged tissues and cells as they naturally break down”, and “to stimulate and maintain bodily metabolism,” which helps to stimulate organ activity.
Also, quality unsaturated fats and oils are beneficial in the burning of stored fat, and have been found to aid in the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K. Tierra writes,“Even the American Heart Association recommends getting between 15 to 30 percent of our calories from that wonderful substance that makes food so delicious.”
What else can be done to help the body digest and absorb the nourishment in the food that is eaten? Oh, there is a lot! Here are a few things that have been proven to help:
- One could eat a raw-or-close-to-raw variety of food and/or supplement with vitamins. Food loses its vitamin and nutrient potency the more it is processed or cooked, especially when cooked in the microwave. Vitamins are essential to life itself. Vitamin deficiencies cause harm to your entire body, creating havoc to your immune system—most of which is in your digestive tract.
- One could supplement with beneficial enzymes such as acidophilus culture complex, including lactobacillus, bulgaricus, and bifida bacterium, which maintains a healthy intestinal environment.
- One could eat food that has been seasoned with traditional kitchen spices. You can also make a tea with these herbs, or take them in capsule form. Almost all kitchen spices aid in digestion. The long list includes names you might recognize like: Basil, Black Pepper, Cayenne, Cinnamon, Cloves, Cumin, Garlic, Ginger, Marjoram, Oregano, Mustard Seed, Nutmeg, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, and Turmeric.
- One could get enough sleep. This can be a challenge, and many books have been written on this subject alone. Seven to eight hours of sleep per night is recommended for an average adult.
- One could get enough exercise. Any kind of exercise will do: walking, jogging, aerobics, yoga, swimming, sports, weight bearing, etc. Lack of exercise leads to oxygen-deficient cells in our bodies, which can affect our digestive tract, along with causing many other ailments. Doing anything that makes you breathe deeply can help fill those cells with the oxygen they crave!
- One could say no to unnecessary activities. Almost everyone has had digestive upset due to a stressfully over-booked calendar or lack of relaxation in their life, such as “butterflies”, diarrhea, or constipation. A body needs down time to do its important internal work.
- One could drink enough water. This is another subject that would need a book to cover it completely. Just adequately hydrating your body can prevent or alleviate so many aches, pains and ailments. It is recommended to drink at least a quart of clean, pure water every day. Other beverages such as juice, soda, coffee, and alcohol don’t count. In fact, they can contribute to and aggravate dehydration symptoms, like headache, constipation, nausea, irritability, etc.
- One could take herbs that aid in the digestion process. In addition to the kitchen spices noted above, there are other herbs that can be ingested to help digestion. Some of those are burdock, chamomile, dandelion root, fennel, marsh mallow root, peppermint (can be made into an alcohol tincture, but the commercial alcohol doesn’t count), spearmint, and yellow dock. These can be found at local health food stores, and can be taken in a capsule, tea, tincture, syrup, or powder form. One good thing about taking herbs is that virtually all of them have no side affects, unlike their counterpart: pharmaceutical drugs. In many cases, they are just as (or more) effective too.
- One could rule out food sensitivities. Common foods that cause sensitivities are gluten (from wheat, rye, and barley), soy (including all forms of soy such as edamame beans, miso, tempeh, soy lecithin--found in most packaged and processed food--, tofu, many meat substitutes, soy sauce, tamari, teriyaki sauce), casein (found in dairy), and night shade vegetables (such as tomatoes, egg plants, peppers, and potatoes). Eliminating these foods for a week, and then reintroducing them to the diet one at a time might help rule them out as a digestive culprit.
- One could use food combining for healthy digestion. Eating the right combinations of food is one of the quickest ways to eliminate digestive pain and upset. There are different enzymes needed for digesting different types of food. For example, starchy foods need alkaline enzymes to be digested correctly, but proteins need acidic enzymes. When both of these foods are eaten together, what happens is that the acidic and alkaline enzymes needed for each end up neutralizing each other. This results in the food just sitting their rotting in the gut, often creating a lot of gas, bloating, and PAIN. Read our article, Food Combining 101 to learn more about food combining.
Having a healthy digestive tract is one of the best ways to lead a healthy, happy life! Once a person is truly healthy, the lifestyle that comes with it can become addictive—an addiction that is recommended!
(Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only, and not intended to diagnose or treat a medical condition.)
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