THE DIGESTIVE SYSTEM
The wellbeing of the digestive system is pivotal to the healing of all chronic health conditions. Proper functioning ensures that the cells of the body can receive the nutrients they require. From nerve cells to bone cells, their basic needs are the same. Just as we need energy to function, so does a cell. If your digestive system is incapable of absorbing the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients it needs from the food you eat, it won’t matter how healthy your diet is.
Even the healthiest and most active of people will have some digestive difficulties. If you look at the typical North American lifestyle the reason for our digestive upset becomes clear.
- High levels of stress
- Inadequate levels of sleep
- Excessive consumption of protein, sugar, and stimulants (namely caffeine)
- Low consumption of fruits, vegetables, and omega 3 fatty acids
- Little or no aerobic exercise
- Low levels of general activity – i.e. increasingly sedentary lifestyle
There are few of us who can say that nothing on that list applies to our lives. So how exactly do these issues affect our digestion? On a basic level, they contribute to inflammation in the body. The functioning of inflamed cells is compromised and they are therefore unable to absorb the proper nutrients from food. Some of these trends have more specific effects, which will be discussed in more detail.
Getting our Potatoes off the Couch
With each passing year our society is becoming increasingly sedentary. With more people commuting, working at desks and suffering stress, it’s no wonder that we can’t find the time or will to exercise. Other than looking and feeling better, exercise contributes to a healthy digestive system as well. It improves our general blood circulation, which means it also improves the circulation to and from the digestive organs. This increased blood flow allows the organs to function more efficiently. The nutrients that your body breaks down are then delivered throughout the entire body – thanks to improved blood flow away from the digestive organs.
Exercise also has a massage like effect on the organs which helps to improve bowel transit time, allowing you to have regular bowel movements. It’s easy to forget that the healthy and efficient elimination of waste products is just as important as what foods we eat and how we digest them.
Sugar – The Root of all Evil?
Sugar isn’t only that grainy white stuff you put in your morning coffee. It has many masks and can easily sneak into commercially prepared foods without us being aware of it. Here is a list of some of sugar’s aliases. This is in no way an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start.
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Dehydrated cane juice
- Fruit juice concentrate
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Lactose (milk sugar)
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Raw sugar
- Rice syrup
- Sugar alcohols (sorbitol, mannitol, malitol, and xylitol)
- Turbinado sugar
You have no doubt heard of many of these before, but some will be unfamiliar. A good tip to remember is that words ending in “ose” tend to be sugars. Also, anything “white” usually indicates a high sugar level. This includes white breads, pastas, and rice. Cutting out any and all sugar is hard to do. Moderation in all facets of life is a good lesson to learn.
The list of side effects due to excessive sugar consumption is much too long to discuss here. That being said, it is still important to highlight some of the more direct affects it has on the digestive system.
- Leads to inflammation of the digestive tract, which decreases its ability to absorb nutrients.
- It is a food source for unhealthy bacteria residing in your body, thereby negatively affecting the body’s natural immune response.
- Excessive consumption can acidify the body.
- It can upset the delicate balance of minerals and electrolytes in the body. It can also interfere with the absorption of certain minerals such as calcium and magnesium.
- Can lead to obesity, high cholesterol, heart conditions, and the development of type II diabetes.
Sensitive, Intolerant or Just Plain Allergic
Just as each of us are unique, so too are our digestive systems. One person may suffer terrible cramps when they eat cheese, while another person may break out in acne when they eat wheat. The trick to happy digestion is learning what your triggers are and how to avoid them.
A food allergy is a reaction from a person’s immune system in which the offending food is considered a foreign invader by the body. The body responds accordingly (by creating antibodies) leading to a range of side effects and symptoms. These side effects, which have a fairly rapid onset, can range from coughing, vomiting and sneezing to full-blown anaphylactic shock. Most people with food allergies are well aware of them and take the necessary precautions.
With food intolerances and sensitivities the responses are dictated by the digestive system and not the immune system. In some cases a person will actually lack the necessary enzymes needed for that food. A common example is lactose intolerance. The reactions and symptoms tend to have a slower onset, especially when compared to a food allergy. They also often require a larger amount of the food to be ingested before the reaction takes place, whereas someone with a peanut allergy may only have to smell peanuts to react. The side effects can range from gas, cramping, heartburn, and stomach pains to headaches, skin conditions and general irritability.
As mentioned earlier, most people know what their allergies are, either from previous negative experiences or testing done. Food sensitivities, however, are a different story. Some of us may have an idea of what foods bother us. Others, however, have no idea that certain foods bother them more than others. So you must be wondering, how could I possibly be sensitive to a food and not even know it? I’ll tell you how.
When we first start eating a food we’re sensitive to our body cries out for us to stop. Some of us ignore these cases of gas, cramping, bloating, nausea, and even diarrhea. We discount them as being a cause of “eating too much” or “too fast”. How many of us have had a negative reaction to a meal and instead of trying to figure out what was going on we simply say, “must have been something I ate.”
If we continue to ignore our body’s cries for help eventually our body stops crying all together. Whatever reactions we were having to the food were relatively minor and peripheral. Once ignored for long enough the reactions tend to go deeper into the body where we don’t notice them or we don’t realise they are connected to the foods we eat. They turn into inflammation, ulcers, skin conditions, arthritis, insomnia, you name it. Many people who finally figure out what their food sensitivities are suddenly find themselves cured of ailments they had no idea were connected to their diet.
Discovering what foods you’re sensitive often requires giving up a particular food group for long periods of time. Once the digestive system is healed and functioning again, you may be able to gradually introduce that food back into your diet. For other people, reintroduction of the food group may never be an option. In either case your digestive system and overall health will improve and your body will thank you for it.
Stress – The New Buzz Word of the Millennia
A wise man once said, “chill out dude” and he was right. You will be hard pressed to find anyone that doesn’t suffer from stress at some point in their lives – for most of us it is too much and too often. Stress itself has become a trend with phrases like, “I’m under so much stress”, being common place. They’ve become so common that we’ve actually forgotten that life shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be that way. Now don’t get me wrong. A certain amount of stress is necessary for human survival. It helps you meet challenges and fight through difficult situations, but past a certain point, stress can have many negative consequences on our health. How does it affect digestion? It relates to our “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” reactions.
For simplicities sake we will talk about the nervous system having two parts – the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). They are basically two sides of a very important coin. The PSNS can be summarized as our “rest and digest” portion. It takes care of things in the body that do not require a quick response, like digestion. The SNS is the opposite, our “fight or flight” portion. Basically it helps to mobilize our body’s resources when it’s under stress. It sends more blood to our lungs, heart, and certain muscles, allowing for quick reactions if necessary. At the same time, blood supply to non-essential systems, like digestion, is being reduced. Think about it this way – if a bear attacks you, you will be worrying about running or fighting, not digesting your morning meal.
Stress, either chronic or acute, has the affect of suppressing the parasympathetic nervous system and activating the sympathetic nervous system. In other words, when you’re stressed, you’re body’s digestive system is essentially shut down. Now if you are stressed out all the time, you can see how this will lead to digestive issues.
The Healing Power of Plants
Restoring an unhealthy digestive system back to its former glory is a long, but satisfying road. Like most roads there will be unexpected turns and the occasional road block or speed bump. Now I’m not talking about a little pill your doctor gave you to mask the symptoms of your angry tummy, I’m talking real and true healing. Amazingly, many of the plants that grow in our forests and fields have the astounding ability to bring our digest system back up to snuff.
There are two major categories of herbs that you need to cover when treating the digestive system. The first are carminatives.
Carminatives are herbs that help relieve and prevent gas, bloating, cramping and nausea. They also help to mildly stimulate secretions in the mouth, stomach, and small intestines. Carminatives can be further divided into those that are warming to the digestive tract and those that are not. Some examples of herbs that are excellent non-warming carminatives are roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and many of the herbs in the mint family including peppermint (Mentha x piperita) and spearmint (Mentha spicata). Warming carminatives have all the benefits of their non-warming counterparts, but they also add a little heat, which helps to stimulate blood flow to the digestive organs. For many of the best warming carminatives, look no further than your own kitchen; marjoram (Origanum majorana), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and ginger (Zingiber officinalis).
The second category of herbs that needs to be considered is bitters. Bitters are herbs that stimulate the secretions of the entire digestive tract (including the liver and pancreas). In addition to supporting the entire digestive process, they also help to improve appetite. There is a catch with the use of bitter herbs. They stimulate secretions through a reflex action in the mouth. Basically that means for them to work properly you have actually taste them. Some great examples of bitter herbs are yarrow (Achillea millefolium), centaury (Centaurium erythraea) and boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).
When using herbs to treat any system of the body it is important to keep in mind that herbs are not meant to be used in isolation of each other. Herbalists will create formulations with a balance of carminatives (both warming and non) and bitters. These formulas will have anywhere from three to seven herbs in them. A basic digestive formula would usually consist of mostly non-warming carminatives, a one or two warming carminatives and one bitter herb.
To Sum It Up
The digestive system is a complicated, yet integral part of our body. The topics discussed here are but a taste of the importance of this system and the many complications that can arise if we abuse it. Our digestive health is connected to every other system in the body and therefore connected to almost any ailment that people can suffer from. Healing our digestive system is essential to healthy and vital life. I will be posting herbal information sheets on a few of the better known digestive herbs.
Thanks for reading. If you have any questions please feel free to email me.
In good health (and happy digestion),