Digestion 101: Part 1

Hi there!

So I was thinking—-maybe it’s about time I gave you some specific information about the gut, since that’s kind of what I’m all about.

I know, I’m amazingly intuitive sometimes. I’m sure you’re impressed. <sarcasm font>

So here we go!

I've said it before and I'll say it again: it’s not so much “You Are What You Eat” as it is “You Are What You Digest”. Put it this way: you could be eating the most nutrient-dense, organic, grass-fed, properly prepared and super-awesome diet, but if your digestion isn’t working well most of it is going to pass out of your body without doing you any good, and probably cause you a bunch of problems along the way. Yikes! Digestion is a complicated and finely-tuned system and the world we live in and the food we eat has a tendency to make it worse rather than better. We'll start with how it's supposed to work and then what can go wrong. Mmmmm-kay?

Digestion is a “north to south” process. So anatomically speaking, it all begins at the top, with your brain. Part of that is obvious, I'm sure we’ve all had the pavlovian response of feeling our mouth water and our stomach growl when we see, smell or even think about food. Usually for me this happens at the most inopportune moments. Like in the middle of an important meeting. Or a very serious conversation. Or, you know, when you're trying to charm and captivate that special someone. Oops. Fail. Unless, of course, you are savvy enough to turn that into a dinner invitation (That has never been me. So sad). At that point the brain is sending various messages to different organs and systems to get the body primed to receive food.

Another part of it, and one that is not so obvious, has to do with your autonomic nervous system (ANS). Your ANS is kind of like auto-pilot for your body. Without your ANS you wouldn’t be able to read this blog post because you’d be spending all your energy and mental capacity remembering to breathe and make your heart beat.

How inconvenient!

Instead, your ANS takes care of all of that for you and also monitors reflexive actions like sneezing, swallowing and vomiting (woo-hoo!). The ANS has two pathways it can take, sympathetic and parasympathetic; these are often described as “fight or flight” and “rest and digest”.

Guess which one you need to be in for proper digestion?

Guess which one you’re usually in when you’re eating?

If you answered those two questions “parasympathetic” and “sympathetic”, respectively, you're right and you’ve perfectly illustrated one of the first and most basic problems with digestion. If you usually eat standing up, or at your desk while working, or during meetings or, heaven forbid, in the car (I’ll admit it, I’ve been totes guilty of this one) you are not eating in “rest and digest” mode. In “fight or flight” mode your body is simply not prepared to digest food and absorb nutrients. Instead, it is perfectly prepared to help you outrun a siberian tiger or fight an aggressor, which is really not at all helpful when what you are faced with is a greek salad with chicken (no pepperoncini and no pita).

There’s nothing you can do about that—-no magic pill or exercise regime that can prevent it. Your ANS will respond to stress and/or hurry with the sympathetic pathway and at that point you’re pretty much screwed when it comes to proper digestion. So when you sit down to eat, first of all: Sit. Down. One of my instructors actually advocates sitting on the floor. Picnic blankets for everyone! Please, at the very least take a moment to say grace or simply feel gratitude or take three short breaths. And just...eat. Your body is about to do a lot of work on your behalf so that you can enjoy the benefits of your food, so how about giving it a break by starting out on the right foot? It’s really not too much to ask.

"I know," you say, "but I'm busy!"

Sweetie, we're all busy. You can focus on your short game if you want, but the long-term consequences of not paying attention to the long game of digestion are not worth it. Trust me.

The next stop on the digestive itinerary is your mouth. I’ll get to that in my next post, but in the meantime I’d like to know: where do you usually eat breakfast, lunch and dinner? No judgement, I’m just curious, and as they used to say during Saturday morning cartoons (totally dating myself here) “Knowledge is half the battle”! We can only change what we have become aware of. Please let me know in the comments below!