A SuperDuper Speedy Guide to the Digestive System

What follows is the first part of week four of Flojo’s Easy Detox course. I was all prepared to edit it down a bit this morning as I wrote it a few years ago and have learnt another ton of stuff since then (I’d not yet heard of the Paleo diet), but on re-reading it I’ve been pretty pleased that the information still holds up. So, in keeping with my lazy nature – here’s my quick (and minimally edited) guide to the digestive system, and a nice quote from one of my book testers! Do scroll back through past blog posts for excerpts from the first few chapters.

“Well after three weeks I’m feeling fab!!! I did find it difficult at first (drinking water mainly) but can happily say that it doesn’t seem an issue anymore; I may even go as far to say I like a glass! (I never thought I’d say that.) My skin is so much clearer, and this has done what no doctor could do and actually lighten my dark circles!! I’m bouncing out of bed in the morning with energy, At first this seemed like a task I was going to fail but now I say bring it on!! If three weeks can make this much difference then I can’t wait for the end result!” Danielle.

Congratulations – you are now half way through the course!! You are now better hydrated, a darn sight cleaner internally than you were a few weeks ago, and, due to that extra veg, better nourished. Your cells will be thanking you from the bottom of their little hearts (not that they have them, but you get the picture!) Have you noticed that your brain is working a bit better as well? Does it feel a little clearer? Even your brain cells will be appreciating the clear out that you are giving them. This is why it’s only fair to make them work a little harder for all that care and attention you have inadvertently lavished on them over the last three weeks. It’s time for a quick science lesson…

Digestion
You may remember simple charts at school outlining the food groups:  maybe a diagram of a plate divided into three to five segments, or a food pyramid designed to show you how much of each type of food to eat. A little bit of meat, eggs and fish for muscle; lots of bread and pasta for plenty of energy; fruit and vegetables for vitamins and minerals; dairy for strong bones; fats to be avoided and sugar for treats. Well… pah! It’s largely wrong! No wonder people struggle to make healthy food choices. This week you are going to relearn the subject of digestion; I was going to skate around it a little bit and just give you some easy tips to detox, but I think that if you know the real deal you’ll be better equipped to make good long term choices when you’ve finished the six week course.

We refer to the basic food groups of carbohydrates, proteins and fats as macronutrients. (Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals.) Most food sources are actually a combination of these macronutrients but tend to have higher concentrations of one type. Here is a basic outline of what they are and what they do for you.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are chemicals made from lots of glucose (sugar) molecules joined together in a chain. They are found in grains (such as wheat), nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit. When these chains have been broken apart, your small intestine (more on this later) can easily absorb the sugar into the blood stream.  The glucose is then whisked off to each and every one of your cells as a food source to be turned into immediate energy. In a more traditional diet, which relies on vegetables, nuts and seeds for carbohydrate intake, this is a slow and steady process providing a sustained source of energy. However, the typical modern Western diet contains more refined carbs in the form of sugar, white flour and fruit juices than our bodies are designed to cope with. As a result we have to produce excess insulin to deal with the flood of sugar in our blood streams that cause energy peaks. “Syndrome X”, a pre-diabetic state is becoming more widespread in our society as our bodies become exhausted trying to balance out blood sugar. Syndrome X is often responsible for weight gain and frequent or permanent fatigue.

Fibre is another form of carbohydrate, but it is not digested, it just sweeps through our digestive system, taking with it all the waste and toxins that we don’t need. It also provides a food source for our beneficial gut flora which releases nutrients from food, helps to keep our gut walls clean and even keeps bacteria such as E-coli in check. (Dr Permutter’s Grain Brain is my highly recommended recent read and outlines all the new research on bowel flora.)

Proteins

Amino acids are a bit like little bricks which are used by our bodies to consistently rebuild and repair wear and tear to our cellular-homes. Eight of these amino acids are essential to this process; if they are found together in the same food source that food is referred to as a complete protein. Meat, fish and eggs are complete proteins because animals, fish and birds need those same amino acids to rebuild and repair their own cells. And yes, you do need proteins to build and maintain muscle mass, the charts you learnt back in school were right on one thing! But that’s really only part of the story. Read a few good paleo books to get a handle on the importance of quality proteins. Nuts, seeds and pulses (beans, soya, lentils etc.) contain many of the amino acids but are not complete proteins.

Fats

In their natural, undamaged state fats, also known as lipids are highly valuable. Got that? You need fat – hooray! In fact, your cellular membrane, the wall that houses your cellular home, is made up of a double layer of phospholipids – that regulates everything going in and out of each cell. When I say “natural, undamaged fats” I mean untreated seed and nut oils, fish oils, krill oil and, just as importantly, saturated fats from both meat and plant sources.

We’ll talk about fats more in week six, but for now it’s worth bearing in mind that fats that have been either chemically or heat treated to stabilize them and therefore increase shelf life, are not good for you. The very processes that stop fats from going rancid in a bottle also make them unsuitable for human consumption.

The Digestive System

Digestion is, quite simply, breaking food down from that pasty and chips you ate last night (yeah, I’m watching you!) to molecules that are small enough to be absorbed into the blood and then used by your body. Are you feeling ready for a quick tour of the digestive system? It’s not a complete overview, more a quick geography lesson to show you the journey that the last thing you ate has taken. As I actually have no idea what the last thing was that you ate I’m going to have to use my own last snack as an example. I’m now really regretting that I’ve just had a biscuit – it’s kind of embarrassing given what I’m trying to write. By the time I’ve finished writing this chapter I promise to go cold turkey with you for a bit of support.

Digestion starts in the mouth; chewing starts to mechanically break a Hobnob down while the enzymes in saliva start on the chemical breakdown. By the time it hits the stomach there should only be a mass of soggy crumbs; stomachs get pretty annoyed if they get fed half chewed food because they have to produce extra acid to break it down. If you regularly experience heartburn or excessive belching then you may find that this gets easier as you progress through the course and improve your eating habits. I have noticed that many people with heartburn don’t always need to change what they eat – but they do need to look at how they eat. Rather than regularly reach for antacids try the following:

  • Chew your food until it reaches a liquid consistency.
  • Don’t talk or try to breathe through your mouth when you have food in your mouth.
  • Don’t drink too much with a meal, have your water quota away from mealtimes.

My solitary biscuit won’t need to spend that long in the stomach because the acid produced here mainly supports the work of enzymes designed to break down fats and proteins. After a couple of hours the stomach empties out into the duodenum where chemical secretions are provided, courtesy of the liver, gallbladder and pancreas, to neutralise the stomach acid and to further break down any fats, proteins and carbohydrates into microscopic particles. The duodenum is the first part of the small intestine, which isn’t in fact small but measures about five metres long! The inside of the small intestine is covered with villi, little finger-like projections that help serve to increase the surface area to about the size of a tennis court. This is really important, because the function of the small intestine is to absorb any available nutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, glucose etc.) into the blood stream for transport to the rest of the body. (My own small intestine probably has a metaphorically raised eyebrow right now, Hobnobs not having such an abundance of nutrients.) The process takes around four hours and is vastly helped by any gut flora (popularly known as “good bacteria”) that you own. 

Please note that Hobnobs are not the food that your gut flora thrives on. They like veg and resistant starch. Gut flora is amazing stuff, it keeps “bad bacteria” such as ever present E-coli in check, it actually creates some of your essential vitamins such as vitamin K and, as it is alive, it actually does some of your digesting for you, keeping your intestinal walls clean and healthy in the process. The least we can do is look after them as they look after us! The average adult has around 1.2kg of this fantastic stuff, but unfortunately our stores are wiped out every time we take antibiotics, leaving us at risk of Candida, Leaky Gut Syndrome, fatigue, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and thrush; and with less resistance to bacterial infection. It is worth supplementing with a reputable brand of probiotics if you think this may be an issue.

Anything that the small intestine hasn’t absorbed ends up in the large intestine. We talked a little bit about this in week two. Muscular “ripples” cause the watery waste to move through and out of your body. We reabsorb whatever water we need from here and the shape, consistency and colour of what comes out tells us a lot about our current state of health. I hope that you aren’t too squeamish because I’m going to give you a very basic symptom checker now.

Constipation: Dry pellets or large, painful stools can indicate a lack of fibre and/or dehydration. Try drinking more water and eating more fibre. If these tips don’t make a significant difference please read Brain Maker – despite the title, you’ll understand when you read it!

Diarrhoea: Loose, frequent and/or frothy/watery stools may indicate food intolerance or, surprisingly, a type of constipation that clogs up the walls of your large intestine causing occasional sudden damn-overflowing effects.

Blood in your stools doesn’t give you much information unless you know where the blood is coming from. Best to talk to your health practitioner about this so that they can set your mind at rest. It’s also good to remember that eating beetroot will often stain your stools so that it looks like blood, but isn’t!

Mucus in your stools can indicate food intolerance or may just be a side effect of detoxing, rather like a runny nose.

Frequent occurrences of intestinal worms may not be an issue of hygiene. Worms thrive in a sugary or starchy environment. Like most house guests, if you offer them lots of cake they are more likely to outstay their welcome!

Haemorrhoids may be a sign that your liver is overloaded. Constipation will make them worse though. You are aiming for a large, soft stool that is easy to pass at least once a day. If this isn’t the case yet it should improve over the next few weeks.

Wheat

Bother, I asked you to forget about those food tables, and now I’m going to have to remind you about them in order to tell you another reason why they are wrong! They give you the impression that wheat should be a staple part of our diets and now I really want to debunk that myth for you. In fact most people benefit hugely from cutting down on or cutting out wheat for a period of time. Modern wheat is a newcomer in the world of grains, an agricultural success because it is easy and cheap to grow. But it is not easy to digest, and therefore comes at a cost to our health. Wheat is rich in a protein called gluten and gluten comes from the latin word for glue. (Other grains also contain gluten but wheat contains the highest concentration.)

Mix flour and water into a paste and then leave it for a couple of hours. Is it easy to clean up? No, because it has formed a glue. Do you start to get an idea of what this is doing to your insides? That paste can coat the surface of your villi, making nutrient digestion and absorption very difficult. If your food doesn’t get broken down properly and gets absorbed into your bloodstream in this state it is very difficult for your body to deal with. This means that some of the resources your body uses to detoxify now get spent in dealing with this non-food. In addition gluten is actually an irritant to the delicate villi, frequently causing inflammation and discomfort. Dr Perlmutter has also written a fantastic book called Grain Brain – you might as well read both the books!

OK. I think that’s enough for this week. I hope this brief overview is helpful. I’ll do you some easy gluten free recipes next time. Later ‘gators!

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