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Ask the Naturopathic Doctor

You Are What You Absorb

Your health depends on a lot more than what you eat.

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Q: I’ve been told I have a condition called gastroparesis, and I’m not a diabetic. Because of this condition I have osteoporosis and suffer with malabsorption. I have followed good health for many years, eating no chemical additives or preservatives. I take a vegetarian enzyme to aid in digestion. I also take vitamin D3. My family doctor told me I do not need any other supplements or vitamins. I am so confused on what is correct. – D.J., via email

Think of nutritional health as depending not only on what you eat, but what you absorb. You can eat nothing but organic, seasonal, vegan foods, and that’s fantastic. But if your body isn’t breaking down the nutrients from your food into assimilable bits, and absorbing those bits into your bloodstream, that wholesome food isn’t doing you much good.

What We Need

Our bodies are like attractive tubes, and the attractive part is beyond the tube-the tissues. These tissues need essential fatty acids (mostly omega-3s), essential proteins (amino acids that we don’t produce internally), and high-fiber, low-glycemic carbs such as vegetables and nontropical fruits, which break down into glucose (to make energy) and fiber (to scrub the tube). Plus all the vitamins and minerals our bodies need to function properly.

Malabsorption and gastroparesis, which means delayed emptying of the stomach, interfere with this process. The most common cause of food lingering in the stomach is insufficient stomach acid due to long-term use of antacids. If you suffer from heartburn, you may need to use antacids short term to prevent painful reflux. But the problem isn’t stomach acid, it’s the valve at the bottom of your esophagus. (See “Heal the Burn” for more information.)

Chew Your Food

Digestion requires calm to function properly. So sit down. Light a candle. Take your time. And chew. It really is very hard on your stomach to receive big chunks of food. Ideally the food would be a soupy consistency before swallowing. If you eat meat, this means a lot of chewing. But it’s worth it.

Of course you can also use a good knife to help make those chunks more petite. And don’t guzzle water (or any liquid) while you eat, because it will dilute the digestive enzymes in saliva.

Understanding the Process

After you swallow, food goes down your esophagus to the stomach, where parietal cells secrete hydrochloric acid. This is important for a few reasons: 1) to sterilize the food, 2) to break down the protein, and 3) so that when the digested food passes out of the stomach and into the small intestine, it’s still acidic. This acidity triggers the final phases of digestion before absorption begins-the release of bile from the liver and pancreatic enzymes from the pancreas.

The pancreas produces insulin and secretes digestive enzymes that act as a “back-up” system in case you didn’t chew well enough or you have low stomach acid. The liver performs myriad complex functions, including delivering bile into the digestive tract. Bile is a cleansing substance that attracts toxins and binds them into the waste that eventually goes down the toilet.

These digestive agents from the pancreas and liver further break down food as it works its way through the small intestine. Various segments of the small intestine are differentiated primarily by their pH, and thus the probiotics that live in each segment. Up high near the acid-producing stomach, the main species of probiotic is the acid-loving Lactobaccilus acidophilus, which is also found naturally in dairy products such as yogurt and kefir. Further down the tube, the pH becomes more alkaline.

The microbes in your intestines are incredibly helpful to overall health, in particular to digestive health. They actively help break down food into tiny pieces that can be passed into the blood stream.

When all the nutrition has been extracted through the small intestine, the waste passes through the ileocecal valve into the large intestine, which features bands of muscle that contract and move the waste along to the terminus. Sometimes the waste matter can get hung up in the flexures, and a little self-massage can help move things along. Many folks have a prolapsed middle part of the large intestine, which can delay waste dumping. The best remedy for this is inverted poses. If shoulder stand or head stand isn’t your thing, just resting with your back on the floor and your legs up the wall, hips raised slightly higher than head with a bolster or pillow, can help promote good eliminations.

Ideally it takes about 18 hours for food to traverse the tube. You can assess your “transit time” by eating a little canned corn or beets, or a capsule of activated charcoal. Check for emerging corn, beet, or black color from the charcoal over the next few days. If your test object passes through in less than 12 hours, this isn’t enough time for optimal absorption, and you’re likely eating something irritating that your body is in a hurry to kick out. If it takes more than 24 hours to pass your waste, you may risk holding onto a variety of persistent toxins in your colon, which could compromise immune system function.

Absorption Ideas

Some nutrients are absorbed more readily than others. B vitamins, for instance, require an intact “brush-border” of microvilli in the lower small intestine for optimal absorption, which is a problem for people whose intestines have been damaged by gluten. Thus, those who are gluten sensitive are almost always deficient in B vitamins. If you’re sensitive to gluten and feel fatigued, check with a naturopathic physician to assess for pernicious anemia or other malabsorption problems. You may need to supplement with sublingual B12, or take other healing measures.

If you often feel heavy after eating, take a digestive enzyme “multi” that contains amylase, protease, lipase, lactase, and cellulose. You could
additionally take a good probiotic in the morning-15 minutes before breakfast-that contains 10 billion or so organisms. I recommend rotating through different probiotics to find the one that makes you feel the best.