If we have worked together, you know digestion is a BIG DEAL to me.
If you haven't, then HI! My name is Emily, and digestion is a BIG DEAL to me.
Digestion is one of the six Foundations of health as outlined by the Nutritional Therapy Association, and healthy digestion is crucial for your body to function optimally. Often, people can recognize the obvious symptoms of digestive dysfunction-and I’m thinking particularly about bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea.
However, when digestion is out of whack, there can be impacts to body systems that may not be immediately obvious. Nutritional Therapy Practitioners believe in the foundations of health-and we also recognize what we call Consequences to Endocrine, Immune, and Cardiovascular health, as well as Detoxification. Digestion influences all of these.
When we talk endocrine system, we’re talking hormones. So, what in the world does digestion have to do with your hormones?
There are five classes of hormones, and each class of hormones relies on a specific nutrient for production.
Steroid hormones are fat soluble hormones which include all your sex hormones, and these require cholesterol to be produced. That’s right, cholesterol, the villain of all heart health scary stories, is critical for your testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and other hormones! Eat your (organic, free range) eggs!
Thyroid hormones are also fat-soluble hormones and include T3 and T4, which you may recognize from lab results if you have ever had your thyroid function tested at your doctor’s office. T3 and T4 require iodine atoms and tyrosine, an amino acid found in many foods. Iodine can be found in shellfish and sea vegetables.
The remaining 3 classes of hormones are water soluble.
Amines are the first of these and require good sources of protein to be produced. Adrenaline, aldosterone, and histamine are some examples of amine hormones.
Peptide and protein hormones, as you may guess from the names, also require healthy sources of protein for production. Human growth hormone, glucagon, and insulin are some peptide and protein hormones. Serotonin and oxytocin also fall into this category.
Finally, we have eicosanoid hormones. Hard to spell, hard to say, and derived from fatty acids. These include the prostaglandins PEG 1, 2, and 3, which influence inflammation in our bodies. (NTA 2020)
What we can put together from all of this is that yes, we need the dietary precursors for production of all our hormones (and there are over 100 of them total!), but we also must be able to digest and assimilate those dietary precursors.
If, say, our gallbladder is missing or compromised in some way, we are going to have more trouble digesting even healthy fatty acids, which means that our eicosanoid hormone production will suffer. Let’s say we are getting plenty of protein in our diets, but our stomach acid is low, or we are not chewing thoroughly. Our bodies will have a really hard time breaking down the protein we consume into the amino acids we need to make amine and peptide/protein hormones.
These are but a couple of examples for you to begin to recognize the importance of healthy digestion for healthy endocrine function, but what about the impacts of subpar digestion to other bodily systems?
Immune health has been a biiiig topic the past couple of years, hasn’t it? But how many people have you heard talking about how important your digestion is to your immune health? Nobody? I haven’t, either-but healthy digestion is imperative for healthy immunity. Did you know that 80-90% of your immune system is located IN YOUR GUT?!
Our bodies are *amazing* at trying to protect us from invaders like bacteria, fungi, and viruses, but again, we must give our bodies what they need to function well, and when it comes to digestion and immune health, that looks like:
Avoiding foods that we know may not be serving us. You know the ones-you run to the bathroom or lie down with a heating pad after eating them, but they may be wreaking even more havoc inside your body than you realize, wearing away your gut lining and eventually contributing to lowered immune function.
Naturally supporting our body’s own stomach acid production. Did you know that your stomach acts as a disinfecting chamber, destroying pathogens in acid, if your stomach acid is sufficient? Chewing thoroughly, making sure to eat foods rich in zinc, and staying hydrated are just a few ideas!
Eating ample fiber and fermented foods. Your “good” gut bacteria are on your side and want
you to be healthy and have a strong immune system. Those friendly bacteria love to eat FIBER! This can look like well-prepared whole grains (if tolerated) or soaked and sprouted legumes. I encourage LOTS of veggies, which are full of phytonutrients that support production of NATURAL KILLER CELLS in our bodies! You may also consider fermented foods, which are so cool. According to The Secret Life of Your Microbiome (2017), fermentation has been shown to actually produce entirely new phytonutrient structures in the process of transforming healthy foods, and some of these newly formed antioxidant chemicals may themselves encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria.
These are but a very few recommendations to support your immune health via digestive support. If immune health is a particular concern for you, working closely with me or another NTP can help you gain more insight and information.
According to the CDC, heart disease killed over half a million people in 2020-more than cancer, COVID-19, and stroke (CDC 2022). However, this is another area where nobody seems to mention how important digestion is to your heart health.
What if I told you that fatty acids are THE preferred source of energy for your heart? Of course, the *right* kinds of fats (such as those found in fatty fish, like salmon) are what that means-not the fat in a Krispy Kreme donut. Yep, keep driving when you see that "Hot Donuts Now" sign. To be able to utilize those ultra-healthy, ultra-important fats, your liver and gallbladder must be functioning well. These organs may not be the ones you think of off the top of your head when you think about digestion, but bile, which breaks down fats, is manufactured in your liver, and stored and concentrated in your gallbladder.
So we want you digesting your fats-but proteins are incredibly important as well! This means supporting stomach health to support proper stomach acidity so that a fun enzyme called pepsin can get activated to do its thing breaking down your healthy proteins into amino acids, which are the smallest building blocks of proteins. The heart especially needs the amino acids taurine and carnitine.
The right level of stomach acid will ALSO help you absorb calcium, which is the mineral that your heart (and all other muscles) needs to contract!
Remember those fiber-rich and fermented foods to feed healthy gut bacteria? Those are also important here, because healthy gut flora helps us produce B vitamins-and vitamin K2, which are players in heart health. Fun fact-vitamin K2 helps get calcium where it needs to be in our bodies. Isn’t it cool how everything is so connected?! Further, the “wrong” gut bacteria have been linked in some studies to hypertension, which is a huge risk factor for heart disease! Give those gut bugs some LOVE!
What does the word “detoxification” conjure up for you? Visions of juice cleanses, deprivation, and sadness? Luckily, none of that is my idea of helpful. But what about…digestion? That’s right-how you are digesting matters for your body to detox appropriately, too!
First, let me clarify what I mean by “detoxification.” Here, I simply mean the process by which your body gets rid of anything that is causing you harm-and sure, that can be nasty chemicals in your cleaning products or on your food, but it can also mean things like excess hormones!
Your digestion plays a crucial role in helping you get rid of all the substances that you don’t need floating around inside your body. Your stomach, when a proper pH is maintained, helps detoxify food, getting rid of potential pathogens before they can make you ill. Your intestines, if healthy, provide a barrier to keep foreign bodies out of your bloodstream. Your intestines ALSO contain a host of friendly bacteria which help in the detoxification process!
Hopefully, by this point, you also recognize your liver and gallbladder as organs of digestion-and your liver is the superstar of the detoxification process.
So how do we support detoxification pathways through digestive support? I’m glad you asked!
The truth is, “if a person isn’t digesting, even the most perfect diet can clog the detoxification pathways.” (NTA, 2020)
We must be able to:
Digest the proteins we consume to break them down into the amino acids needed by our liver for detoxification,
Digest our fats appropriately-if we don’t, our liver will not perform optimally!
Have appropriate bile production, which will help toxins be removed through our intestines, and finally,
WE HAVE TO POOP! That is just one way our bodies get toxins OUT, but it is an important one!
Let’s Wrap It Up!
Your ability to digest the beautiful, nutrient-dense foods I’m sure you are eating is essential for your health, possibly in several ways you may not have considered. There are some simple ways you can support your body’s digestion, beginning with trying to eat in a peaceful, relaxed state, and chewing your food thoroughly before swallowing.
Some other ways you may easily support the digestive process may look like avoiding foods to which you have a known sensitivity, consuming ample fiber and probiotic-rich foods, avoiding chronic stress (or employing stress mitigation techniques), and just staying hydrated!
Should you want more information, or should any of these areas be of particular concern to you, please reach out via the Contact page! Helping people feel their best is my passion, and getting digestion on track is one of the best ways to support your overall health from a foundational perspective.