Basic Health Habit No.2: Digestive Health and Nutrition Part Two

Part Two:
The Importance of Digestive Health 
The Keys to Digestive Health
Canadian Digestive Health Statistics
The Proper Balance of The Food Groups
Food Combining for Digestive Health
The Enteric System 

Digestive Health

All illness and disease starts in the digestive system and that is why the quality of your food choices (natural, whole food) and how you eat, matters. A diet that is high in refined sugars, hydrogenated oils, and saturated fats, encourages the development of unhealthy bacteria and yeast, pathogens, and the systematic breakdown of digestive function. 

The digestive tract is referred to as the little brain with the largest area of nerves outside of the brain. This means that your digestive health affects your brain and nervous system health and function, as well as stress levels directly affecting the digestive system. 

70% of immune system function takes place in and depends on a healthy, fully functional digestive system. 

The food that you eat is processed here and the digestive system also absorbs the nutrients and fluids from food, and the toxic material excreted by the liver. 

The physiological function of hydration is adversely affected by digestive dysfunction.

We have all heard the saying You are what you eat, but it would be truer to say: You are what you properly digest, and the nutrients that you properly absorb

Nutrition and digestive health is a Basic Health Habit, necessary, universally for human physiological health. Basic Health Habits create and maintain the resilient health needed for life in the 21st century.

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The Keys to Digestive Health

There are only a handful of requirements for a healthy digestive system, but they are essential, unreplaceable, and non-negotiable.
  • Fibre has many health benefits throughout the body and in the digestive system. It is the key to creating the perfect environment in the intestines for healthy bacteria to thrive. Insoluble and soluble fibre is only found in plant foods: whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and vegetables and fruit. 
  • Healthy Bacteria (AKA: digestive flora, probiotics) is necessary to control unhealthy bacteria; to support optimal immune system function; producing vitamins, absorbing minerals, and eliminating toxins; preventing allergies; anti-inflammatory potential; digesting and absorbing certain carbohydrates, et all.
  • 80:20 percent ratio of healthy:unhealthy bacteria 
  • Fluid all fluids in the body are electrolyte solutions with dissolved minerals and salts. Hydration is a digestive function. For more information please visit: HEALTH COACH Basic Health Habit No. 3: Hydration 
  • Nutrition from a natural, whole food diet 
  • 80:20 percent ratio of alkaline:acidic pH balanced diet
A healthy, fully functional digestive system is only possible with an intact digestive system, with no part removed.

Canadian Digestive Health Statistics
  • 20 million (more than 50%) Canadians suffer digestive disorders every year = $18 billion in healthcare costs; lost productivity, and 30K deaths annually = 15% of economic/healthcare cost; more than any other disease category. 
  • Highest incidence of inflammatory bowel disease in the world: ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease; resulting in malnutrition, skin, eye, joint, biliary tract, and blood disorders, and premature death - 1.8 billion in HC costs. 
  • 5 million Canadians have IBS - the highest rates in the world. 
  • Ulcers have increased 50% since 1996: 1.3 million people - hospital care for peptic ulcer disease costs $67 million per year. 
  • 85 percent of children with autism suffer from gastrointestinal distress such as chronic constipation or inflammatory bowel disease. 
  • Canadian prevalence of H. pylori is 8 to 10 million people, affects 75% of First Nation people; H. pylori infection is considered to be a carcinogen by the WHO - it is associated with the development of stomach cancer. 
  • GERD affects 5 million Canadians/week, $2 billion in Canada spent on antacids and anti-ulcer drugs annually.
  • 330,000 Canadians are affected by celiac disease.
  • Next to lung cancer, digestive cancers kill more Canadians than any other cancer type - about 15,000 individuals per year. 
  • Canadian eating disorder statistics: 5.5 million women age 15-24 - Adolescent girls who diet are at 324% greater risk for obesity than those who do not diet.
  • Canada has two new eating disorders related to health dieting trends, and a new psychological disorder, Body Dismorphic Disorder (BDD), that now includes a growing number of young boys and men, as well as girls and women.


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Digestion starts in the mouth. The cephalic phase of gastric secretion occurs even before food enters the stomach, especially while it is being eaten. It results from the sight, smell, thought, or taste of food, and the greater the appetite, the more intense is the stimulation. This enhanced secretory activity brought on by the thought or sight of food is a conditioned reflex. It only occurs when we like or want food. When appetite is depressed this part of the cephalic reflex is inhibited.

The teeth and tongue begin the mechanical breakdown of food and the salivary glands create/excrete saliva, which contains mucous and mineral electrolytes to protect teeth enamel and the digestive tract from digestive enzymes and gastric acid. Saliva also contains enzymes like alpha-amylase that begins the transformation of complex starches and carbohydrates into simple sugars. Saliva helps to moisten and lubricate food to help it pass down the digestive tract. At this stage the digestive system is already communicating with the brain and preparing the right mix of digestive enzymes. This is why it is important to properly chew your food.

Acidic gastric enzymes from the stomach containing pepsin, rennin, and hydrochloric acid, combined with muscular movement, break down proteins.

The pancreas is the main digestive organ. It produces important digestive enzymes as well as hormones such as insulin. Pancreatic digestive juices are secreted into the first section of the small intestine (average 3-7 metres long) and contain tripsin, which break down proteins, lypase, which breakdown fats, and amylase, which break down starches. The small intestine also has organs that secrete digestive enzymes and moves food along by wave-like muscular contractions called peristalsis. Nutrients are diffused through the walls of the intestines into intestinal blood vessels and transported to organs to be used  for the various functions of the body.

Bile, produced by the liver, contains salts which emulsify fat,  and is stored in the gallbladder. In the absence of bile, fats become indigestible and can lead to deficiencies in essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins. In addition, past the small intestine (which is normally responsible for absorbing fat from food) the gastrointestinal tract and gut flora are not adapted to processing fats, leading to problems in the large intestine. Bile is naturally alkaline and helps to neutralize any excess stomach acid before it enters the  small intestine. Bile salts also act as bactericides, destroying many of the microbes that may be present in the food. Cholesterol and bilirubin is released with bile. Gallstones are caused by an increase of cholesterol and digestive dysfunction. 

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Waste from the liver, along with other undigested and unabsorbed food is carried through the intestinal tract to the large intestine (average 1.5 metres long), also known as the colon where it is acted on by bacteria called flora, and fermented. Water, salt and some fat-soluble vitamins are extracted from the solid waste.

Several disorders of the digestive tract can be traced to too much or too little of the digestive juices. For example; too little saliva can lead to tooth decay and can be a symptom of a more serious condition. Too much gastric juice from the stomach, usually as a result of a bacterial infection, can lead to ulcers. Too little bile can lead to the inability to digest fats, and too much cholesterol in bile can lead to gall stones.

Eating a diet that is natural and whole supplies not only good quality nutrition, but also the fibre and the healthy fats needed to be disease free. Chronic pain, fatigue, allergies, hormonal balance, emotional stability, weight control, aging, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis are directly linked to digestive health.

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The Proper Balance of the Food Groups

Vegetables One half to two-thirds of your nutrition should come from this group and every meal should contain food from this group.

Protein  Our body can use only 15 g to 30 g at a time to build and repair tissue, the rest is burned for energy or, too often, stored as fat. To maximize your body's assimilation of protein, divide your daily intake of protein between all meals and snacks. Slightly less than one-third of your nutrition comes from this group and includes meat, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, nuts and seeds. At least two thirds of your protein intake should come from non-meat alternatives.

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Healthy Fats are an essential part of a natural, whole food diet. It is the type of fat you eat, and the amount consumed, that matters. Fats are necessary for the building and the health of all cells. Healthy fat aids the function of the brain, metabolism, hormones, lungs, eyes, digestion, immune system and the heart. Healthy fat eases inflammation. Low fat diets are often high in refined carbohydrates, salt and sugar and low in fibre.

Carbohydrates  Less than one-quarter of your nutrition comes from this group and includes: fruit, whole grains, cereals, tubers and pulses.

Fruit is nutrient-rich food choice; high in fibre, but also high in natural sugars. Our cultivated varieties are composed of more sugar and are sometimes less nutritious than their wild, ancestral varieties. Unlike vegetables, the quantity is an issue. Eating fruit in moderation, and native to your country, is recommended. 

Sugar  This is not actually a food group, but rather an element of your diet that should be eaten sparingly. Sugar is not a nutrient. It interrupts the assimilation of nutrients, contributes to inflammation, and disease formation.

Water is an important component of a healthy diet. 

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Food Combining for Digestive Health

There are different requirements for each type of food for proper digestion. For example: protein needs different enzymes and an acidic environment, while starches and other carbohydrates need different enzymes and an alkaline environment to be properly digested. If you combine food from these two food groups, the acidic and alkaline enzymes could create a neutral digestive environment which would lead to improper digestion. 

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Poor digestion leads to putrefaction and fermentation which creates an environment for bacteria, reduces nutrient absorption and can lead to disease. Bloating, gas, hiccups, heartburn, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, headache, fatigue, joint pain, and skin rashes are some of the ill affects of improper food digestion. 

Also, different food groups need differing lengths of time to be digested properly. Protein and fats require an average 4-6 hours for digestion, starches need 3 hours, fruit and vegetables 2 hours and melons 15 minutes to 1/2 hour. It is best not to follow a meal with a sugary or starchy dessert. 

Cold liquids can be consumed 1/2 hour before or after a meal but never consumed with meals. Warm or hot beverages and room temperature red wine are ok with meals. 


Our Second Brain

The Enteric System
Almost every chemical that controls the brain is also located in the digestive system, including hormones and neurotransmitters such as Serotonin, Dopamine, Glutamate, GABA, and Norepinephrine. 
The abdomen contains 100 million neurons – more than the spinal cord. But there are also two-dozen small brain proteins; major cells of the immune system; one class of the body’s natural opiates; and native benzodiazepines. 
The enteric nervous system is located in sheaths of tissue lining the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and the colon, and plays a key role in human emotions, but few of us even knows the enteric nervous system exists, and therefore, digestive health is often overlooked. Symptoms from the two brains can get confused, and just as the brain can upset the gut, the gut can also upset the brain. 
If you’ve ever had your stomach in knots before speaking in public, then you know the stomach listens carefully to the brain. In fact, according to William Whitehead, PhD, a professor of medicine and an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, the entire digestive system is closely attuned to a person’s emotions and state of mind. People with irritable bowel syndrome often suffer symptoms during times of stress and anxiety, and even perfectly healthy people can have an increase of stomach pain, nausea, constipation, or diarrhea during stressful life events.  
There is a constant exchange of chemicals and electrical messages between the two systems. In fact, many scientists often refer to them as one entity; the brain-gut axis. Therefore, what affects the stomach will directly affect the brain and vice versa.

Digestive Health and Nutrition, 
Brain Function, 
and Emotional Wellbeing

  • Brain networks that are associated with the control of feeding are intimately associated with those that are involved in processing emotions, reward, and cognition. 
  • Abundant paleontological evidence suggests that there is a direct relationship between access to food and brain size, and that even small differences in diet can have large effects on survival and reproductive success. 
  • Omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids support neurobiological processes and up-regulate genes that are important for maintaining synaptic function and plasticity. DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in cell membranes in the brain and is obtained from diet only. 
  • In addition to the capacity of the digestive system to directly stimulate molecular systems that are associated with synaptic plasticity and learning, several digestive hormones or peptides, such as leptin, ghrelin, glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP1) and insulin have been found to influence emotions and cognitive processes. 
  • The brain consumes an immense amount of energy relative to the rest of the body. The mechanisms that are involved in the transfer of energy from foods to the neurons are likely to be fundamental to the control of brain function. Processes that are associated with the management of energy in neurons can affect synaptic plasticity, which could explain how metabolic disorders can affect cognitive processes. Synaptic function can, in turn, alter metabolic energy, allowing mental processes to influence somatic function at the molecular level. 
  • Excess calories can reduce synaptic plasticity and increase the vulnerability of cells to damage by causing free-radical formation that surpasses the buffering capacity of the cell. A moderate caloric restriction could protect the brain by reducing oxidative damage to cellular proteins, lipids and nucleic acids. 
  • The brain is highly susceptible to oxidative damage because of its high metabolic load and its abundance of oxidizable material, such as the poly-unsaturated fatty acids that form the plasma membranes of neural cells. Antioxidants maintain metabolic homeostasis and energy homeostasis in mitochondria. 
  • A number of innovative studies are pointing to the importance of dietary components in influencing epigenetic events - that is, non-genetic events, such as DNA methylation, transcriptional activation, translational control, and post-translational modifications that cause a potentially heritable phenotypic change - and the potential for disease modulation. 

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