Digestion 101: Part 2

If you were surprised that we started this mysterious process of digestion in the brain, Part Two should put you on more familiar ground. In Part One, we passed the first gate of our north-to-south progression. After your brain has registered the presence of food and your autonomic nervous system has gone it’s merry way down the parasympathetic pathway (or the sympathetic, you poor lamb!), it’s time for the second gateway: the mouth!

Think of it this way: the main goal of digestion is to get the particles of food small enough to be absorbed into your bloodstream and lymph system so they can do what they need to do to support your body’s metabolism. Your mouth begins this process two ways: mechanically and chemically. The mechanical process is easy, right? It’s just…chewing.

Here’s a little experiment to try the next time you’re at a restaurant or your break room at work. Start noticing how many times people chew a bite of food. If they make it beyond five I’ll be shocked. Most people chew two, maybe three times and then gulp it down.

Not. Good. And definitely not Fairylike!

I’ve read recommendations to chew at least 30 times or, to put it another way: “Drink your food and chew your liquids”. You want to chew your food until it’s pretty much at liquid consistency, and slosh liquids (like your morning smoothie) around until they are fully salivated (more on that later). I’ll be honest, I have sucked at chewing, historically. I’ve started using a trick that helps me chew my food more without making myself crazy counting bites. It’s easy: simply put your fork down between every bite. Viola! Problem (usually) solved! I don’t know why, but there’s something about putting my fork down that makes me focus on the food and chew it more. It makes me feel very Zen.

OK, you think, but so what if I don’t chew my food properly? Big deal. Won’t my stomach just pick up the slack?

Maybe. Kind of. But not really, TBH.

*Trigger warning*: we’re about to talk about poop. (Probably not the last time, get used to it.)

Have you ever seen undigested food in your poop? I’ll bet you have. Soooooooo……..not so much with the stomach making up for your lack of chewing, huh? Granted, a person with a stronger digestion might have better luck, although their digestion won’t stay strong for very long if they keep overworking it that way. Your food is *supposed* to be mechanically broken down by your teeth before in gets to your stomach. That’s the way the system is designed.

But there’s more to it than that, which brings us to the chemical part of the process. Saliva is meant to get the food wet (salivated) to help with chewing. But saliva also contains enzymes that help break the food down chemically. For example: salivary amylase, which works specifically to break down carbohydrates. But here’s the catch—-it’s deactivated by HCl (stomach acid) when it reaches the stomach. So if you don’t chew (or “slosh”), you don’t give it time to do it’s magic on that salad (or smoothie, as I mentioned above) that you’re chowing/slurping down.

At the end of the day, you need your food to be properly broken down by the mechanical process of chewing and the chemical processes of various enzymes in your saliva. First of all, this keeps you from stressing your digestive system by asking it to do jobs it was not meant to do. Most of us are already dealing with impaired digestion because of what we talked about in Part One, so please, PLEASE, don’t make it any worse!

But you also need to do this because improperly digested food wreaks havoc in the rest of your gut. It’s actually one of the leading causes of food allergies and intolerances. It works like this: proteins, fats and carbs are meant to be reduced to the appropriately small versions of themselves before they reach your small intestine and are absorbed through the lining into your blood and lymph. Improperly digested food actually irritates the stomach and intestinal lining and creates something called “leaky gut”, where gaps in the cells of the lining start allowing those improperly digested food particles to pass through. The body doesn’t recognize them as nutrients because they are not in their proper size or form. So instead it declares them the enemy and calls up the immune system to deal with them. This could mean anything from a runny nose, stomach cramps, minor swelling of the tongue (my personal favorite) to full-on anaphylactic shock.This is one of the ways that food allergies can pop up “out of nowhere”. Improving digestion can almost always help reverse these kinds of allergies or intolerances.

If that’s not enough to convince you to chew your food, here’s another thing: if you tend to get gassy within an hour after eating, that is usually a sign of poor “northerly” digestion. Something may be going wrong in the stomach (we’ll get to the in Part Three), but it also may mean that the food that’s getting to the stomach (called a bolus at the point) hasn’t been properly broken down. So if you want to fart less, start by chewing more.

And on that lovely note, I shall leave you until next time, when we’ll talk about what happens after the food leaves your mouth and heads to the next gate on our north-to-south extravaganza: your stomach!