Read an Excerpt
Understanding Your Digestion
This book is about natural answers to digestive problems, but it is also about the relationship between your digestive tract and your overall health. Who would have thought a book on digestion would end up pertaining to all aspects of your health-- immune system, emotions, allergies, vitality, and more? Let me explain.
Your overall health can be pictured as a circle, with your digestive tract an essential triangle inside that circle.
The three points of digestion-- absorption, assimilation, and elimination-- are at the core of your overall health. Doctors and researchers recognize the importance of diet in health and well-being. Now the fundamental role of absorbing that diet is beginning to be appreciated.
Three Keys to the Digestive Process
- Absorption is the "dramatic" moment when food crosses from the outside world inside the middle of you (your intestinal tube), across your intestinal wall, and into your bloodstream.
- Assimilation occurs when the nutrients enter your cells.
- Elimination is part of the clean-up process-- getting rid of waste products.
You have heard the saying "You are what you eat." Well, this isn't really the whole story. It's not until your food is optimally digested that it actually becomes part of your body. So, the saying really should be "You are what you digest." Karen's story, which follows, illustrates this. But we actually can take this saying a little further: "You are how you live, because your habits and emotions affect your digestion."
Did you know that eating refined grains (white bread, white pasta, white rice, and refined flours in bakery goods) can create vitamin B deficiencies? Did you know that being low in B vitamins can promote maldigestion, or that inadequate levels of B vitamins can also make you tired, moody, anxious, or depressed?
Did you know that overconsuming alcohol stresses your ability to digest? If you drink to excess for only one evening, over the next few days a portion of the food you eat, even if it is organic and high in nutrients, could be toxic to your body rather than nourishing. Even short-term alcohol abuse can adversely affect intestinal digestion.
Emotional trauma can negatively affect digestion. It has been found that bouts of extreme anger, the loss of a loved one, or a diagnosis of catastrophic illness may adversely affect digestion for the following few weeks or even months.
KAREN'S MEMORY LOSS AND FATIGUE STARTED IN HER STOMACH
Karen was a chic, successful computer expert in Silicon Valley in northern California. At forty-two, she was happy with her job, excited by her future, but troubled by her body and mental health. She was exhausted and had significant difficulty concentrating and remembering things. After an exam and some basic blood tests, her regular physician chuckled and told her that she wasn't getting any younger.
Not satisfied, Karen asked around. A friend recommended my holistic clinic in Palo Alto. There I gave Karen an initial hour and a half interview and asked many questions, especially about her digestion. Karen said every time she ate she'd become severely bloated. Based on tests, Karen was diagnosed as having too little stomach acid, inadequate levels of B vitamins, and a diet insufficient in fiber, fresh fruits, and vegetables.
Karen was put on a nutritional program. I suggested she sit down and eat her lunch in silence and peace. After two weeks of taking digestive enzymes, eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and quality protein, and doing a simple ten-minute meditation/affirmation/reflex session at home every morning, Karen was a new woman. The key point was that Karen had not been absorbing her food optimally. She hadn't been sick enough to be diagnosed with a disease, yet she hadn't been well enough to be enjoying vitality in her life. When she attended to her digestive tract, Karen's health returned.
Warning Signals: Red Lights on Your Body's Dashboard
If your body were a car, you'd have a dashboard. On this dashboard would be warning signals to tell you if something was wrong. Well, our bodies actually do have warning signals, but we are not trained to notice them. We often recognize illness only when we are so ill that we can no longer avoid the fact. But there were probably warning signals all along the way, if only we had noticed them. What are the warning signals that our digestion is not optimal or that we may be absorbing our food poorly?are usually warm and
have healthy pink coloring
even without overeating
of shakiness, anxiety, depression,
or anger for no reason
15 minutes after eating
Dr. Emmanuel Cheraskin has stated that there is really only one disease: malnutrition. In America, many cases of malnutrition are not caused by overt starvation, but rather by eating low-quality food and doing an even lower-quality job of digesting it.
Normal vs. Abnormal Bowel Movements
The "father of medicine," Hippocrates, used to urge upon the citizens of Athens that "it was essential that they should pass large bulky motions after every meal."
People always ask me how many times a day it is normal to defecate. It's important to remember that there is a wide range of normality. However, the real question becomes: Is what is considered normal actually too wide a range, so that many people who are abnormal are included?
Medical textbooks say normal defecation in suburban America ranges from two to three times a day to several times a week. In my experience with thousands of people, I have found that not eliminating daily is associated with a higher risk of incurring many intestinal as well as other health problems. I have observed that when people balance their diets and nutrients enough to eliminate their symptoms of ill health, they usually have bowel movements one to three times a day.
You should eliminate at least once a day.
Note: Microscopic stool analyses can assess a number of facts about absorption. These tests are available through various labs. See appendix B.
Home Assessment of Digestion
Analysis of Your Stool. Good digestion should result in stools that are large, round, medium to dark brown, do not float, are not bubbly, are somewhat soft and mushy, and do not frequently exhibit undigested food. You should not need to strain. Passing stools should not hurt or burn, nor should they have a noxious odor.
Intestinal Transit Time. This is an important and easy test to do at home. Optimal digestion includes optimal intestinal transit time-- the average time food takes to go through (transit) your body. Healthy intestines contract about 12 times a minute, which propels food on its digestive journey. This should optimally add up to about 24 to 30 hours from mouth to rectum. In the United States, the normal transit time is about 48 hours or larger. This is normal, but by no means, optimal. To test your transit time, use a "color marker," such as activated charcoal or corn kernels.
What to do: Swallow about 20 grains of activated charcoal tablets (5 to 12, depending on how large they are) all at once with water. You can purchase charcoal tablets from your drugstore or health-food store. If they are not available, swallow 4 tablespoons of whole corn kernels. Note the time you swallow the charcoal or corn. Then note the first time you see your stool turn black (from the charcoal) or you notice clumps of the corn kernels in the stool.
Optimal transit time is approximately 24 hours. With prolonged transit time, you first see indicators at 30 to 40 hours or more. If you first see indicators at 78 hours, or you never see them, this suggests a "toxic" bowel. Also, once you notice the indicators, you should keep noticing pieces of them for no more than another 12 hours. If you continue to see bits of the indicators for several more days, this is another sign of a sluggish bowel.
When I was in practice, over 20 percent of the people who took this test never saw the indicators come out. This suggested too long an intestinal transit time and a "sluggish" intestine. Not adequately eliminating waste products increases the risk of numerous diseases, as well as suffering with poor digestion.
Redo this easy home test once a year to make sure you are "on target" with optimal gastrointestinal health.
Daily Ways to be Extra Good to Your Intestines
- What you do first thing in the morning makes a difference to your intestinal and overall health. Even if you drink coffee in the morning, at least do something nice for your intestines before the coffee hits your stomach. First thing, on rising, drink two glasses of quality filtered water.
- Do something good for your intestines midmorning or afternoon.
- Have yogurt with applesauce.
- Have a piece of fruit and/or sip green tea.
- Sit and breathe deeply, look at the sky, and have a moment of peace. This is food for your intestines, too.
- Eat and drink healthily.
- Eat two or three different-colored vegetables and fruitsa day.
- Consume at least two high-fiber foods a day (see chapter 2).
- Drink 5 to 8 glasses of quality fluids daily. Drink filtered or spring water. If you eat generous amounts of fresh fruits and veggies, you can drink less. Even tea and coffee contribute (we retain half as water). On the other hand, sugary drinks such as colas are dehydrating.
- What you do right before bed affects your health.
- Have a glass of filtered water.
- Sit for a moment in bed and remember one good thing from your day. Feel gratitude. Gratitude is food for your intestines, too.
Children and Digestion
Dr. Jonathan Wright, M. D., internationally renowned nutritional expert, suggests we never have a guarantee of good digestion or absorption, no matter what our age. He has records of more than fifty children under the age of three who had no outright disease, yet had inadequate digestion and absorption as proven by laboratory tests.
DAVID-- BETTER LIVING THROUGH IMPROVED ABSORPTION
Seven-year-old David suffered from severe asthma. He had been diagnosed as emotionally unstable and had been seeing a psychotherapist for over a year, as well as taking drugs, but his asthma continued to worsen. David's mother took him to a nutritionally oriented doctor who discovered David had frequent tummyaches and excessive intestinal gas. Tests showed that David didn't make enough stomach acid. The doctor explained that David had not been adequately digesting his food. The undigested food particles traveled through David's body, probably causing inflammation and irritation in his lungs, contributing to his asthma and food allergies.
Within one week of taking digestive supplements and going off milk and wheat, David's stomachaches went away. Within one month the asthma was gone. David was happier and more emotionally stable. David's digestive problem was causing his asthma. Avoiding milk and wheat products and taking digestive supplements allowed David to live a normal life without dependency on steroids.
Wouldn't you want to know if your child could get rid of or improve asthma (and other problems) through diet and digestive enzymes rather than through medication? Doesn't it make sense to try natural methods first?
Optimal Digestion Needs Supportive Players
Digestion is a transformative act. It takes external matter (food) and attempts to break it down to absorbable pieces, so that some is let into the body and the rest is removed. Food kept in the body has to be broken down sufficiently to lose its foreignness. This lets the body accept the food as nutrition, rather than fight it as it would a foreign invader. In this sense, digestion is part of our unifying relationship with the external world.
There's a lot involved: from simple unsophisticated activities, such as chewing, to involved and complicated substances, such as the protective, paintlike coating of the intestinal wall. There are digestive enzymes, fiber foods, quality water, the balance between stressor foods and protector foods, the intestinal ecology (composed of friendly and unfriendly bacteria), exercise, the presence or absence of infectious agents, nutrient levels, and the health of the intestinal lining. We will talk first about the intestinal lining.
Key Functions of a Healthy Intestinal Lining
When the intestinal lining is healthy, it assists in the digestion of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and acts as a traffic guard, or discerning barrier, not allowing potentially noxious substances into your body (while still letting in the "good" ones). Remember, whatever substances get inside your intestinal tube are "outside" of you until they cross your intestinal lining. The lining also has an immune function-- protecting you against and neutralizing unfriendly bugs, microorganisms, and allergic substances.
The intestinal lining has a muscular layer, and like any muscle, it can have good or bad tone. A weak muscular lining doesn't propel food through your intestinal tract at a healthy rate. An overstimulated muscular lining can cause spasms.
A healthy intestinal lining is self-cleaning and renewing. Because the lining of the gastrointestinal tract comes into contact with so many different foods and substances and because it has such diverse jobs to perform, it must be able to "clean and rebuild" itself quickly in order to stay competent. The cells that make up the lining of your intestinal tract are shed and replaced every three to six days. This is one of the fastest cellular turnover times (mitosis) in the human body. Because of this fast growth rate, the cells making up the lining of the digestive tract are extremely sensitive to daily nutrition, easily damaged by dietary and lifestyle indiscretions, and affected by the balance between protector and stressor factors.
How to Take Nutrients
Since nutrients are recommended for each condition discussed in this book, a short word on how to take them is essential.
Take fat-soluble nutrients (they often come in gel capsules) with fatty meals. Water-soluble nutrients can be taken at any time of day, but most people tolerate nutrients better with some food in their belly. If you have intestinal discomfort, take them throughout the meals.
It is a good idea to add one supplement a day to let your body acclimate to taking nutrients, or to identify ones that may not agree with you. Sometimes taking nutrients with digestive enzymes for the first two weeks helps you acclimate a little more easily. Take most herbs on an empty stomach 15 to 20 minutes before meals. Whenever a separate B vitamin is recommended, take it with a B complex and only take the specific B vitamin for one to three months. Multiple nutrients are part of any healing program-- but these programs are for limited periods of time.
Protectors of the Intestinal Lining
- Quality food, such as unground grains, fresh vegetables, fruits, seeds, and nuts (organic, as much as possible).
- Vitamins and minerals and certain amino acids, such as B complex (especially B1 ,B6 , and folic acid); vitamins A, C, D, and E; zinc, selenium, manganese, molybdenum, magnesium, and arginine all nourish the intestinal lining.
- Glutamine, an amino acid, has a trophic, or positive growth effect on the intestinal lining. It is easily converted into 6-carbon glucose (the sugar the body uses), so it is a good intestinal fuel source for quick energy to the cells that line the intestinal tract. In this way, glutamine indirectly helps support many functions of the intestinal tract.
The bodies of most healthy folks make plentiful amounts of glutamine from skeletal and lung muscle. In metabolically stressed individuals, such as the elderly, this manufacturing system can be overwhelmed. One reason elderly people have thinner intestinal linings is that they have less muscle mass and lung power to assist in the manufacturing of glutamine. This can be improved through exercise, which rebuilds muscle mass and lung capacity.
Glutamine is so protective to the intestinal tract that when it is given along with chemotherapy, it reduces some of the negative side effects on the gut and enhances the overall well-being of the cancer patient, as well.
- Flavonoids are found in more than 4,000 widely occurring plant foods, especially the leaves or outer parts of fruits and vegetables. Flavonoids help "tighten" the junctions of the intestinal lining to assist in the important barrier function. Flavonoids give foods like wine, apples, blueberries, and blackberries their color. Flavonoids are found in most fruits, especially in apples, grapes, and berries; in vegetables like lettuce, onions, endive, broad beans, and red peppers; as well as in black and green tea, red wine, and apple juice. They are so protective of the lining of the intestinal tract that certain concentrated forms of flavonoids are used to treat stomach ulcers, allergies, and inflammation.
- High-fiber foods "brush" and "clean" intestinal lining cells, whereas low-fiber diets (junk food) lack this maintenance-cleaning action. Cereals and beans, high in fiber, are also high in phytic acid, which helps protect the intestinal lining. Phytic acid is found in grains and protects the colonic cells from cancerous changes.
- Muscle tone in the intestinal tract helps propel food (a process called peristalsis).
- Bowel movements, at least once a day.
- Water that is free from contaminants, in adequate amounts.
- Short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are another growth stimulator to the intestinal lining. They supply fuel for the cells that line the colon, as well as stimulate enzymes that assist in digestion. Eating a quality diet feeds the bacteria that make SCFAs, which in turn feed intestinal lining cells.
- Friendly bacteria, like the L. acidophilus found in yogurt, help make SCFAs.
- N-acetylglucosamine, a nutrient made of a simple sugar and an amino group, is an essential part of the "coat" worn by all the body's cell. Studies now show it helps grow cartilage, and it also protects the intestinal lining.
Stressors of Your Intestinal Lining
- Food stressors: Excessive consumption of nutrient-poor foods: sugars, refined carbohydrates (white flour products like pastries, pastas, and cookies), alcohol, caffeinated beverages (black tea, colas, and coffee), table salt, saturated animal fats; excessive intake of animal foods, hydrogenated and processed oils; overeating of processed foods; and overeating in general.
In other words, coffee first thing every morning, tea and cola through-out the day, along with frequent consumption of foods like doughnuts and pastries, over time will erode the intestinal lining.
- Lifestyle stressors are anything that disrupts the normal intestinal environment, such as surgery, chronic stress, or illness.
- Various stressors. Regular use of aspirin (even enterically coated) and anti-inflammatory drugs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs-- NSAIDs); infections with viruses, bacteria, and parasites; food allergies; chronic constipation or diarrhea; overgrowth of unfriendly bacteria; and nutrient deficiencies due to a variety of causes such as allergies, poor eating habits, poor exercise habits, illnesses, surgery, and trauma.
- Developmental stress periods, such as infancy, pregnancy, and aging, may cause more stress and demands on the intestinal environment. Environmental contamination in water, food, and air may be disruptive factors.
Intestinal Immune System
Every time you eat, your intestinal tract is exposed to a wide variety of substances, food, and microorganisms. To deal with this challenge, the intestinal tract has one of the most powerful immune systems in the body. Eighty percent of the body's lymph nodes (the immune system's hotels for white blood cells that fight off foreign invaders) are located around the intestinal tract.
Secretory IgA, protective proteins that fight off foreign invaders and substances, make a sticky antiseptic paint that forms a protective coating along your intestinal tract. The antiseptic paint "licks" the bad guys (toxic and allergic substances). This licking "warns" the rest of the body.
Four Factors That May Tax the Immune System of the Gut
- Eating excessive amounts of refined sugar on a daily basis.
- Eating refined (processed and hydrogenated) oils on a daily basis.
- Eating the same foods over and over again (repetitive eating).
- Eating foods you are allergic to (you may not be aware of these).
The combined actions of absorption, assimilation, elimination, and immunity are supposed to make sure that whatever gets into your bloodstream from your intestinal tract will cause as few problems as possible for the rest of your body. Avoiding stressful foods assists this process.
Are You Confused about What to Eat?
I think it is important to make a comment about what constitutes an optimal diet. This is because nutrition is confusing, even to experts (if they are honest). For example, one day the results of research say eggs are good, then after more studies they say eggs are bad, and then they say eggs are fine if eaten in moderation. One day fiber is protective against colon cancer and lowers cholesterol, then, with the next new study, its benefits are nil or questionable.
What is an ordinary person to do? You can't go wrong if you stay moderate. A moderate, sensible, and optimal diet includes fresh vegetables, fruits, cultured foods like yogurt, nuts, whole grains, along with quality proteins such as beans, fish, and eggs.
Don't believe what just one authority says. Read information from many sources and, when looking toward diet as a therapeutic tool, explore what works best for your unique body and lifestyle.
- Fresh foods: Eat many raw foods, as well as fresh vegetables cooked immediately before eating.
- Eat some fresh fruits and raw vegetables each day.
- Eat more fresh foods than commercially processed foods. Avoiding processed foods can get tricky. Many of us, for example, are eating more turkey and less red meat. But turkey in the plastic package (even in the deli section) has additives and is processed. When I lived in Australia, any time I got a chicken or turkey sandwich, they pulled the meat right off the bones. Try to avoid processed foods as much as possible.
- Excessive consumption of processed, canned, and "dead" foods depletes health and digestive vitality. Food with long shelf life got that way from processing the life-promoting essential oils and nutrients out of it.
Not All Oils Are Created Equal
Eliminate as much processed and hydrogenated oil as possible from your diet. Look at the pressing dates on oils that need to be refrigerated to make sure you are getting a fresh product.
Try alternating oils: olive, hazelnut, flax, and sesame. Keep them tightly closed and refrigerated. Break a capsule of vitamin E into each bottle when you first open it to preserve the oil. This is because oil gets oxidized when we leave an opened bottle on the counter for a while, and toxic substances form in the oil that may have irritating effects on the intestinal lining. Since oil is fat and chemicals such as pesticides store in fat, try to buy organic oils whenever possible.
When you start adding tablespoons of oil to your diet, or more seeds and nuts, make sure to take daily vitamin E orally to prevent oxidative stress from the oils.
Mindful Eating Tips to Enhance Digestion
- Prepare an enjoyable atmosphere. Light some candles, set a nice table, sit down, and look out the window. Mealtime should be a minivacation.
- Pay attention to what you are doing. You are eating. You are feeding your body. Smell the food, see the food, enjoy the food. This enhances digestion.
- Eat in a relaxed atmosphere. Do not eat when angry, upset, or hurried. Emotional upsets disturb digestion, no matter how pure the food is.
- Eat at a moderate pace. Do not inhale your food; chew your food mindfully. This creates more self-respect and peace inside your body as well as in your digestive tract.
- Avoid drinking ice-cold drinks, or drinking too much liquid with meals. Ice-cold drinks slow down digestion and too many beverages overload digestion. Drink alcohol moderately.
Three Easy and Tasty Juices That Feed Your Intestines
Ginger cooler Juice carrot and Granny Smith or Macintosh apple together with a slice of fresh ginger, and dilute with water to reduce sugar.
Intestinal Freshener Juice celery, cucumbers, and carrots. Optional: Add a little mint through the juicer.
Berry Madness Blend blueberries and strawberries with a little apple juice, some water, and protein powder. Yum. Optional: add yogurt.
Drink juices immediately. Naturally occurring enzyme activity is released by the juicing or blending and remains at its highest level for about five minutes. If vegetables and fruits have been refrigerated until right before juicing, the cool juice is even more refreshing and tasty.
Another way to use your head is to learn to eat the right amount of food. Overeating and oversnacking are the downfall of many of us. Eat to a comfortable point, so your stomach is not stuffed. Eat only when your stomach is empty and you're really hungry. This greatly improves digestion.
Overeating is a burden on the entire digestive system. Eating too much irritates the delicate cells that line the intestinal tract. Overeating contributes to undigested food and toxins burdening the intestinal tract, the liver, and the entire body.
If you travel to Europe, one thing that will strike you is that people eat at mealtimes and rarely snack. Here in the United States, people eat in their cars, while walking, and while hanging out. We are munching and snacking all the time-- we are obsessed with instant gratification. This traumatizes the digestive system and greatly contributes to many digestive ailments, as well as to other health problems.
Seven Ways to Reduce Eating Without Starving
- Eat more unrefined whole grain products.
- Avoid refined sugars and overeating of simple carbohydrates.
- Have a fiber cocktail midmorning (see chapter 2).
- Chew food twenty times before swallowing.
- Wait ten minutes after finishing the first plate before you think about having seconds. Your satiety center needs a few minutes to kick in.
- While you're waiting, breathe deeply several times. Think about your body and how you feel in it.
- Rotate your foods: attempt to eat a wide variety of types and colors of foods.
It's not infrequent dietary indiscretions that matter. It's how you eat most of the time that counts.