I often get nervous that with all the terminology we use nowadays to talk about our overall health never mind our gut health, the real meaning of a word can sometimes get lost or misunderstood. For this reason I think it’s important to revisit Biology and Chemistry class from time to time to enable us to take more action around our own overall good health.
Reacquainting ourselves with how the body works can often trigger the answer to a question around our own gut health we’ve been trying to figure out for quite some time.
OUR Digestive system - WHAT IS IT?
The system of organs responsible for getting food into and out of the body and for making use of food to keep the body healthy.
The digestive system includes the salivary glands, mouth, oesophagus, stomach, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, small intestine, colon, and rectum. The digestive system's organs are joined in a long, twisting tube from the mouth to the anus. Inside this tube is a lining called the mucosa. In the mouth, stomach, and small intestine, the mucosa contains tiny glands that produce juices to help digest food. Cells lining your stomach and small intestine make and release hormones that tell your body when to make digestive juices and send signals to your brain that you are hungry or full. Your pancreas also makes hormones that are important to digestion.
Two solid organs, the liver and the pancreas (both of which are embryologically derived from the digestive tract), produce digestive juices that reach the intestine through small tubes known as ducts. We call these organs solid to distinguish them from the other organs which are all hollow. In addition, parts of other organ systems (for instance, nerves and blood) play a major role in the digestive system.
How does my digestive system break food into small parts my body can use?
As food moves through your gastrointestinal tract (GI) tract, your digestive organs break the food into smaller parts using:
- motion (mechanical), such as chewing, squeezing, and mixing
- digestive juices (chemical), such as stomach acid, bile, and enzymes
Nervous System and the Gut
Functional gastrointestinal disorders affect 35% to 70% of people at some point in life, women more often than men. These disorders have no apparent physical cause — such as infection or cancer — yet result in pain, bloating, and other discomfort.
Multiple factors — biological, psychological, and social — contribute to the development of a functional gastrointestinal disorder. Numerous studies have suggested that stress may be particularly important. The relationship between environmental or psychological stress and gastrointestinal distress is complex and bidirectional: stress can trigger and worsen gastrointestinal pain and other symptoms, and vice versa. This is why psychological therapies are often used in combination with other treatments — or even on their own — to treat functional gastrointestinal disorders.
The enteric nervous system (nerves within the walls of your GI tract) as a second brain
Life-sustaining functions, such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, and body temperature, are regulated through the autonomic nervous system. This complex network of nerves extends from the brain to all the major organs of the body and has two major divisions. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the "fight or flight" response. The parasympathetic nervous system calms the body down after the danger has passed. Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems interact with another, less well-known component of the autonomic nervous system — the enteric nervous system, which helps regulate digestion.
The enteric nervous system is sometimes referred to as a "second brain" because it relies on the same types of neurons and neurotransmitters that are found in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). After sensing that food has entered the gut, neurons lining the digestive tract signal muscle cells to initiate a series of intestinal contractions that propel the food farther along, breaking it down into nutrients and waste. At the same time, the enteric nervous system uses neurotransmitters such as serotonin to communicate and interact with the central nervous system.
This "brain-gut axis" helps explain why researchers are interested in understanding how psychological or social stress might cause digestive problems. When a person becomes stressed enough to trigger the fight-or-flight response, for example, digestion slows or even stops so that the body can divert all its internal energy to facing a perceived threat. In response to less severe stress, such as public speaking, the digestive process may slow or be temporarily disrupted, causing abdominal pain and other symptoms of functional gastrointestinal disorders. Of course, it can work the other way as well: persistent gastrointestinal problems can heighten anxiety and stress.
Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, this “brain in your gut” is revolutionising medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think. The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from oesophagus to rectum.
“Its main role is controlling digestion, from swallowing to the release of enzymes that break down food to the control of blood flow that helps with nutrient absorption to elimination,” explains Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, whose research on the enteric nervous system has garnered international attention. “The enteric nervous system doesn’t seem capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our big brain—with profound results.”
Medical Meaning of Digestion
A process in which food is broken down into a form that can be utilised.
It usually consists of two elements:
- a mechanical/physical stage, e.g. mastication, churning, emulsification, in which no chemical bonds are broken and no enzymes are required; and
- a chemical stage requiring enzymes and bacteria in which complex food molecules are broken down by hydrolysis (the chemical breakdown of a compound due to reaction with water) into a state in which they can be absorbed.
Digestion is accomplished by physically breaking down, churning, diluting, and dissolving the food substances, and also by splitting them chemically into simpler compounds.
Carbohydrates are eventually broken down to monosaccharides (simple sugars); proteins are broken down into amino acids; and fats are absorbed as fatty acids and glycerol (glycerin).
The digestive process takes place in the digestive system. The salivary glands, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas are located outside the digestive system, but they are considered accessory organs of digestion because their secretions provide essential enzymes.
Carbohydrates: principally starches, lactose, and sucrose. Starches are acted on by the enzyme ptyalin (alpha-amylase) secreted in saliva, by hydrochloric acid (HCl) in the stomach, and by pancreatic amylase and intestinal amylase in the small intestine, which split the starches into maltose and isomaltose. These, in turn, are acted on by maltase and isomaltase and split into two molecules of glucose. Lactose is split by the enzyme lactase into a molecule of galactose and a molecule of glucose. The monosaccharides glucose, galactose, and fructose are absorbed from the small intestine into the blood.
Digest - to change food in your stomach into substances that your body can use.
We cannot remind ourselves enough of the above to keep our common sense in check when it comes to being marketed at on a constant basis.
Our bodies have been built with exquisitely, clever systems that keep us healthy. There is nothing we can ingest in the form of supplement or super food to replicate the intelligent performance of our organs and systems which keep us alive.
BUT. We can and must be mindful of the food that we eat. We have the responsibility to nourish our body with its food of choice. We must maintain a relationship of respect with our body. That means being mindful with the food that we eat and how we treat our bodies with movement and thoughts.
Knowing how highly complex our digestive system is. Realising the many parts to digestion both mechanical and enzymatic. And knowing nerves contribute massively to the successful or unsuccessful digestion of the food we eat is a lot to take in right?
This is the very reason why it is so important to protect and promote our foods own ability to produce enzymes and good bacteria. To eat whole foods versus foods with stabilisers and unnatural enhancers. Establishing and maintaining a diet that works in tandem with how our body is structured is a healthy, functional way to eat. When I talk about functional eating this is what I am referring to - eating foods that respect our body’s organs for a healthy digestive and nervous system.
Our social and environmental relationship with food and body aesthetic can wreak havoc on our gut health. Scientists have now established this to be true. Therapeutic care for the mind has long played a major role in addressing disordered eating.
Today I would like you to consider the foods you eat and the way you feel. Are your feelings around how you look dictating the foods you eat negatively? Are the foods you eat dictating your mood negatively? Try hard to figure this one out. Trust me, I know how difficult an exercise this is.
A lot of you have been in touch recently wondering whether it’s a good idea to incorporate wheat back into your diet having been off it for so long.Whether that’s been down to IBS, personal choice, a feeling around gluten intolerance, or a whole host of other gut related symptoms. Whatever the case may be, making the choice to abstain from or indeed reintroduce a particular food such as wheat back into your diet does need to be a considered one.
Taking something out means limiting variety and our gut bacteria love variety. And so this needs to be done with caution and a knowledge around what you’re doing. Wheat and most other grains were grown and farmed inorganically for decades with thousands of different species being lost to bad government policy and the industrial revolution. These inorganic grains are not good for our health and so of course I do not use them. Ancient and Heritage varieties of grain grown organically are beneficial to our health - fact. Unless you are a coeliac these grains should not be abstained from.
Similarly re-introducing foods back in needs to be a considered journey. Eating sourdough after years without wheat might not be the best idea but that only depends on the type of sourdough it is.
A lot of the flour that goes into bread in the UK is made from Canadian hard wheat which has been steel roller milled and is high in gluten. This means two very important things.
1 - Steel roller mills burn the naturally occurring wild yeasts and enzymes in the grain which function to help ferment the food and metabolise the food when your body goes to digest it.
2 - There are many proteins in wheat but the gluten protein remains the strongest one after the grain has been roller milled into flour. I don’t think any body is designed to digest high portions of gluten without the presence of all the other proteins and fibres.
Thirdly, lots of sourdoughs are made up of steel roller milled white flour. No matter how healthy a person may be they will nearly always complain about feeling bloated post a hard wheat sourdough loaf. I do. I do not eat that kind of bread and I recommend no one eat that kind of bread, no matter how healthy you feel.
For the person who has abstained from bread for far too long, eating sourdough made from organic, stoneground, ancient and heritage grains, fermented slowly using a wholegrain rye starter to culture the bread is the safest route to go. These types of sourdough are high in prebiotic fibre which fertilise the growth of good gut bacteria. They are low in the gluten protein. They are high in B vitamins, vitamin E, as well as iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium and phenolic compounds (antioxidants). Sourdough made in this way not only has a positive influence on your gut health but contributes to your overall good health longterm. The B vitamins in grain are essential brain food and many of my students have noticed the positive effects on their mental health through introducing bread made in this way.
When we have a gut related issue we tend to let that issue overhaul all other aspects to our body. Our brain health, our skin health, our immune system, our lymph system. In making food choices we need to look at our health as a whole because the health of our brain and immune system contributes to our gut health just as much as the food we eat does. Fermented whole grains are enormously beneficial to every aspect of our body and so doing your best to incorporate them back in is sensible.
We work with mills here in the UK and further afield that farm organically, stone mill, grow ancient and heritage variety grains and take the nutrition of their plants and soil super seriously. Eating bread made with produce from these terrors is a good choice to make.
I currently have students on the course who had been abstaining from wheat for years and they are reporting very good results, not only on their gut health but their mental health too.
Bread is not an evil product. A society that believes bread is bad is not eating the right kind of bread and has bean misled. Now is the time to educate yourself. I hope I can be a part of that journey with you.