The gastrointestinal system, also referred to as the digestive tract, or gut, is a group of organs that includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, colon, and rectum.
The gastrointestinal system is more than the body’s primary site for taking in and absorbing nutrients. It also acts as a communication center to and from the brain, and functions as one of the body’s frontlines in the fight against disease. According to Dr. Lisa Ganjhu, clinical assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center:
“Our gut plays a major role, not only in our gastrointestinal health, but in the health and well-being of the entire body.”
Understanding the digestive journey of food
Food is broken down and made digestible all along the entire gut. We have long realized that digestion is a journey.
How to avoid digestive tension and simple indigestion
- Try to eat meals at regular times so that digestive enzymes are ready. Our digestion and circulation do not like surprises.
- Chew foods thoroughly, breathe slowly to stay relaxed
- Have a pleasant dining experience by preparing simple, easy to digest foods. Avoid tea or coffee with meals.
- Enjoy flowers, candles, music, happy friends and family or other ways to naturally relax during meals
- Many people say prayers giving thanks for the food and to prepare for a smooth digestive journey.
Understanding the steps along the way can help us to receive our food’s full benefit.
The digestive process begins with the mouth, where chemicals in our saliva, called enzymes, start to break down the food. Chewing helps release necessary enzymes. The more you chew, the better you can digest food.
The chewed food then enters the esophagus, which uses a process called peristalsis to move the food from the mouth to the stomach. A valve, or sphincter, acts as a gateway to keep the food from going back up into the esophagus. If we experience tension or anxiety during a meal, it can cause the valve to stay open or jam so that digestive acids escape causing irritating bad breath or heartburn.
In the stomach, our food is then sterilized and further broken down. The stomach produces hydrochloric acid (HCL), which helps to sterilize the food to prevent infection and nausea. Stomach enzymes play a significant role in digesting proteins and other nutrients. In Ayurveda, they call this process “agni” (digestive fire), or in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) it’s called “stomach qi.”
Herbs such as ginger, pepper and cumin can increase the enzyme action in the stomach. Additionally, the stomach’s churning motion helps to transform the mashed food into a liquid called chyme. This often takes hours, with heavy and fatty meals taking longer to digest than lighter meals. After the gut and brain have decided the food is ready, the stomach moves the liquefied food into the small intestine.
Then: Small Intestine
The small intestine is where nutrients are absorbed and packaged to go to the rest of the body. The massive absorption of nutrients that occurs in the small intestine requires a large surface area. The small intestine measures approximately 21 feet long when stretched out. Its inner lining functions like a towel to increase absorption.
Then: Pancreas, Liver, Gallbladder
Along the way, the pancreas, liver, gallbladder, and bile duct play important roles in our digestive process. The pancreas secretes digestive enzymes into the small intestine to help break down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, while also producing the hormones insulin and glucagon to help regulate our blood sugar. The liver, which is the largest solid organ in the body, is the body’s primary site of protein-building. The liver produces a green liquid, called bile, which is secreted into the gallbladder, which when needed releases the bile into the small intestine to help break down dietary fats. In turn, the small intestine sends carbohydrates, fats, and other nutrients to the liver, where they are converted into protein and glucose, to be used as fuel for the body.
Finally: Colon and Rectum
When the small intestine is finished absorbing nutrients from the liquefied food, the remaining digestive material is passed into the colon. The colon acts as the gut’s “dryer,” absorbing water and electrolytes as nourishment and passing any remaining solid waste to the rectum and out of the body.
Digestion: A Relay Team
Imagine that our digestion is like a relay team. The runners’ track is the long, winding digestive tract, the gut. Each runner carries a basket of food passing the basket from one runner to the next. If a runner gets tired there is less digestive fire or digestive qi so that digestion is slow and incomplete. If the runner drops the basket in the mud, undigested food, acids, irritants, and toxins become mixed into the food. Worse, if a runner trips and falls, making a hole in the basket, spilling some food, there is less food in the basket. It spills onto the grass making a mess.
Read on to learn how to patch the hole in the basket, which natural health professionals call “leaky gut.”
How do gut troubles start?
In modern cultures, we’ve all had moments in life where we’ve done some damage to our gut. Most likely, there’s been a time when you made poor food choices, had a chronic illness, took pharmaceutical medicines, experienced surgery or childbirth, used birth control pills, had chronic indigestion for any reason, suffered serious emotional issues, or felt under par.
In these moments, your gut likely suffered an imbalance in necessary enzymes and bacteria. Our digestion, like all health processes, is influenced by physical as well as emotional factors. You might say you have “butterflies in the stomach” or that you “feel things in your gut.” The truth is, the gut is our vital connection between brain and body, lifestyle and energy, desire and action.
What are symptoms of a leaky or imbalanced gut?
Learn to recognize common signs of poor digestion and absorption such as bloating, gas, gut pains, irregular elimination, parasites, yeast infections, skin problems and mood swings. See how the gut becomes vulnerable below and https://www.academyhealingnutrition.com/pre-and-probiotic-immunity/
When the gut becomes vulnerable
The gut wall is only one cell thick which makes it vulnerable to injury from stress, smoking, drugs, harsh and destructive foods especially sugar and most grains which are inflammatory in nature and sprayed with pesticides, also from our use of antibiotics, and over the counter pain pills such as ibuprofen. Such irritants, over time, thin the fragile gut wall lining and may result in a tear, like the relay runner who spills food on to the grass.
The risk of cell damage throughout the body, including the gut, is probably made worse by our use of microwaves, electronics, pollution etc. Call it modern life. The battle that goes on in the gut is between the “good” and “bad” bacteria that are always there. Drugs, stress and certain foods kill the useful bacteria so that harmful bacteria and yeast (candida) become overpopulated.
Most people at one time or another have experienced “leaky gut”––which is a tear in the fragile intestinal wall that allows poisons to enter the bloodstream instead of being eliminated through the colon.
Effects of Leaky Gut
Leaky gut can lead to:
- Chronic fatigue
- Cloudy thinking
- Chronic indigestion
- Bloating and pain
- Food allergies
- Skin problems
How the microbiome protects the gut
The microbiome, AKA the community of bacteria that live in the gut––make digestion and absorption possible. Since all bacteria (“the good, the bad and the ugly”) are killed off with antibiotics and chemo-therapies, the healthy bacteria need to be replaced with probiotics and fed with the right foods called prebiotics. It may take a long time to rebuild gut health, but in many cultures of longevity, there are foods, herbs and spices that can help.
5 Steps to Take to Heal Your Gut
At Academy of Healing Nutrition, we stress the importance of the microbiome, the healthy bacteria that live in our intestines and make digestion, absorption and immunity possible.
We know that a healthy gut underlies brain health, organ health, skin and hair health and immunity to illness because the nutrition that is digested and absorbed in the gut passes into our blood. The gut is a passageway into the body. At the Academy, we learn which foods and herbs are beneficial and how to correctly prepare foods that challenge gut health.
Below are a few of the most important steps one can take if they are looking to heal their gut naturally.
- Avoid sugars (especially processed)
The first step to gut health is to begin rebuilding the microbiome. The best way to do this is to limit harmful foods and substances, such as: sugar, sweets, sweeteners, and inflammatory foods that quickly turn to simple sugars, such as sweet fruits and juices, white flour, grains, even rice, whole wheat, oats and pseudo-grains like buckwheat.
Instead, consider rebuilding the gut
Millet, which is a seed, is not harmful. When inflammatory foods are eliminated the good bacteria have a chance to be replenished with pre- and pro-biotics.
- Add probiotics and prebiotics
What are probiotics?
Probiotic foods have traditionally been a source of helpful digestive bacteria. Fermenting foods was the way families could preserve summer produce for year round use. Popular methods include: fermented pickles and sauerkraut without additives, miso, yogurt and kefir, kimchi, naturally fermented soy sauce and Japanese natto made from non-GMO soybeans, traditional (raw milk) buttermilk and raw cheeses.
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotic foods feed our probiotics. They are either not digested, or only partially digestible. They leave behind fiber that passes without breaking down in the stomach and go to the gut where they ferment and feed our probiotic bacteria. They include Jerusalem artichoke (sun chokes), leeks (long white onions) yellow and white onion, asparagus, chicory root, walnuts, and pistachio, to name a few.
Some nutritionists also recommend “resistant starches,” which are high fiber foods that ferment in the gut, such as green banana or white rice boiled with coconut oil and left in the refrigerator overnight. You might have pre-and probiotic foods together or eat the prebiotic foods first and allow them to begin fermentation.
Side-effects of prebiotics
Adding prebiotic foods can bring changes to digestion. Since they are fibrous, they may temporarily increase bloating and gas. They may feel satisfying (like whole grains sometimes do) but increase metabolism and lead to ketones, which happens when we start to burn body fat. Everyone has ketones. We produce them when we don’t have enough insulin in the body to turn sugar (or glucose) into energy. The liver burns fat into ketones, a type of acid, and sends them into our bloodstream. Fasting, extended periods of not-eating, can increase ketones and make us feel nervous or have bad breath. Staying hydrated is important and can often help reduce discomforts.
- Combine pre- and probiotics
There are many ways we can successfully combine prebiotics and probiotics.
For example, a recipe:
Sauté in olive oil bitter greens such as spinach, dandelion, kale or other, add some onion or leeks, walnuts. And make a salad dressing with yogurt, lemon juice and some fresh or dried herbs that support gut health such as basil, oregano, sage, thyme or a dressing of mashed avocado, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
- Rebuild the gut wall
When you start to protect the gut wall you need to add foods that help to prevent tears. Here is a short list:
Non-irritating foods include tubers such as sweet potato, jicama, and taro. Yucca, a South American starchy vegetable contains saponins which are naturally occurring chemicals that have a soapy texture. They soothe the gut wall and help to make joints movement easier for chronic arthritis.
Peel and cook yucca like potato––add in olive oil or coconut oil, sauté onion and garlic. It is difficult to peel. For convenience, you can buy it frozen and boil it covered with water until tender. Yucca, also called cassava, must always be cooked.
Cooling and Moistening Foods
Other foods that help to thicken the gut wall include blueberries, blackberries, figs, cranberries, lemon, dark unsweetened chocolate, and unsweetened cocoa powder. Avocado is a healthy fruit because of its oils.
Seaweeds provide minerals necessary for building healthy blood and tissue. Green vegetables include Brussels sprouts, Belgian endive, arugula, radicchio, broccoli, and broccoli slaw, cabbage, and okra. If you don’t like the slimy texture of okra, you can eat it raw. Nuts include walnut and macadamia. Mushrooms, especially shiitake and enoki, are complex foods and protein sources that improve immunity. They are cooling, nourishing and have anti-cancer effects. Goat and sheep cheese are recommended. Cow dairy is harder to digest and contains a protein that causes allergies in many people. For that reason ghee, clarified butter, is easier to digest and can be used instead of butter.
- Heal your micro- and holo-biome
As the gut is our inner lining, our skin is the outer surface of our microbiome. That means that our skin quality, texture, moisture and skin aging are greatly influenced by what is absorbed in our gut. Our emotions also influence micro- and holobiome. The holobiome is the sum total of the component genomes in an organism. In this case, together they make up the large intestine, lungs and skin.
A TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) look at healing the gut
The understanding that there is an energetic connection between the inside and outside of the body is in alignment with Traditional Chinese Medicine. The “metal” element in TCM encompasses the lung and large intestine. Together they influence our complexion.
Smoking, inflammatory foods and your gut and skin
Have you noticed how when people give up smoking, their breathing and complexion improves? Do you have acne or dry cracked and peeling lips? These symptoms often reflect the level of moisture and bacteria in your gut. Limiting sugar (inflammatory foods), using a cooling diet and lung moistening rejuvenating herbs such as asparagus or a soup made with tremella (aka cloud fungus or snow fungus) goji berries and jujube red dates can help rejuvenate the gut and your skin and lips. Again: what’s happening internally is reflected externally.
Emotions and the Gut in TCM
Extreme or long-term emotional upset can damage digestion, other organs and our immunity. Chinese herbalists often say, “Grief damages the lungs.” Our immunity (T cells) have been shown to drop following grief. For natural ways to avoid common problems associated with stress, anger, grief among others, see Heart to Heart.
Dermatologists have reported increased cases of acne during the Covid19 epidemic. Also See the AcademyHealingNutrition.com blog “Good News from China” for information and North American sources for herbs used in China to reverse lung damage resulting from COVID 19.
Traditional Chinese Medicine support for the gut
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, essential body fluids (known as yin), are necessary to maintain healthy organ tissue, blood, enzymes, hormones and to support healthy breathing, digestion, circulation—our whole body/mind health. Below are a few powerful formulas of Moistening Herbs called “Yin tonics.”
“Yin tonics” are moistening herbs that increase fluids in lungs, stomach and blood in liver and kidney. When combined with other types of herbs, they can moisten dryness and transform phlegm, moisten the intestines to promote laxative or diuretic action, alleviate thirst, calm hyper emotions and promote strength. With some guidance from a herbalist, the following herbs can be brewed as a tea or added to cook in soups.
Common Yin Tonic Herbs:
- American Ginseng (panax quinquefolium)
- Ophiopogonis (mai men dong)
- Soloman’s Seal
- Dried Lily Bulb (bai he)
- Monk Fruit (luo han guo) a sugar substitute
Moistening foods that contain vitamins B, C, E and A are: avocado, walnut, dark chocolate, salmon including the skin and sweet potato. These foods contain necessary oils and sweet potato, which is less irritating than white potato, and can also help to balance blood sugar.
Fermented Foods: Miso
As we covered earlier, fermentation is the healthy process whereby foods release digestive enzymes. You might think of them as “aged” foods or “predigested” foods. Fermented foods act as powerful probiotics.
At the Academy of Healing Nutrition, we often add Miso––made as a soup or sauce. Miso is made from fermented soybeans (sometimes adding other grains). Our cooking classes offer details on the types of miso, which vary in color, taste and strength depending upon their ingredients and length of fermentation time. The lighter colored miso contains more rice and is fermented for a shorter period of time. The darker miso, which may contain barley or other grains as well as soybean, is fermented longer and has a stronger flavor suitable for colder weather or richer cooking ingredients. All forms of miso can often offer powerfully healing benefits to the gut.
Miso is easy to use. Miso soup is simply a spoon of miso paste added to a warm (not hot) dashi broth. Dashi can be made from scratch by simmering kombu (kelp seaweed) in water. Japanese groceries also often have ready-made powdered dashi soup stock.
Other Ways to Use Miso
Use miso paste as a salt substitute. When cooking grains or steaming or simmering salmon or vegetables, allow the cooking water to cool to warm then add the miso paste and it will brighten and slightly salt the flavor of your cooking. At the same time, as a valuable fermented food, it can support digestion and cell renewal.
By recognizing the common signs of poor digestion, we can make the connection to our gut health. Learn to recognize common signs of poor digestion and absorption such as bloating, gas, gut pains, irregular elimination, parasites, yeast infections, skin problems and mood swings. To correct discomforts, add more curative foods and herbs so that your energy, vitality and emotional resilience may improve. Your gut, the connection between body and brain, desire and action may be renewed.