Digestion: the four most important questions to ask


1. What is digestion?

Digestion is the body’s way of taking food, breaking it down into small molecules that can be absorbed into the body and excreting the waste. The nervous system starts digestion by getting the body ready for food when we think about, and see, food. Chewing and saliva start to break food down in the mouth before going into the stomach via the oesophagus. Strong acids continue the process in the stomach and the small molecules are absorbed from the small intestine. The balance goes through to the large intestine for water to be removed and waste excreted.

2. Why do I get digestive problems?

There can be many causes of poor digestion and these include pancreatitis, coeliac disease and lactose intolerance. But the most frequent causes are poor diet and nutrition.

Too much sugar is all too common in our Kiwi diet. High levels of carbohydrates, especially high glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates, lead to increased levels of insulin. In the gut, levels of digestive enzymes, gastrin and pepsin, decrease and the production of stomach acid reduces. Proteins aren’t digested as well as they should be and digestion is impaired.

Eating insufficient protein and food allergies or sensitivities can also affect digestion, as can the mechanics of eating. Rushed meals, especially eaten in front of the TV, and stress in our lives can be a factor.

3. What are the effects of poor digestion?

Many of the symptoms appear to be minor irritations, such as reflux, heart burn, bloating, cramping, wind, tender abdomen and constipation or diarrhoea. It is common for people to simply put up with them.

But ... 70% of our immune system resides in our gut so these symptoms can act as a warning sign that our digestion is not working properly and of future ill health. Poor digestion can cause the wall of the gut to be inflamed and may cause it to become “leaky” so undigested proteins are absorbed into the blood stream. The body doesn’t recognise these large proteins so may try and fight them with the immune system and start an inflammatory reaction. The inflammation may make food allergies more likely and is thought to be a factor in conditions such as eczema, asthma, sinus, itchiness, acne and arthritis.

If our digestion is poor, then our ability to absorb nutrients and the goodness from our food will be reduced. Some minerals need the acidity of the gut to be absorbed so deficiencies often occur in these minerals (eg. calcium and magnesium). Deficiencies may lead to thyroid problems, anaemias, osteoporosis and fatigue. In fact, almost all chronic diseases involve some degree of digestive dysfunction. If any of the above symptoms occur more than just occasionally, please ask for an appropriate treatment.

4. How can I improve my digestion?

The first thing to do is to look at diet and food sensitivities. Swap high for low GI foods, increase your fibre and protein and reduce alcohol consumption. Swap bad fats for good oils high in omega-3 to reduce inflammation. These may sound like big changes but try salmon instead of steak, brown rice instead of white and add avocado to your sandwich. Food sensitivities can be identified by keeping a food and symptom diary to identify any foods that are causing flare-ups and avoid those foods. Alternatively, Holistic Nutritionist Alison Cowell operates from Ahuriri Pharmacy and performs intolerance testing.

The way we eat can also improve symptoms. Don’t skip breakfast. The gut is ready to digest food well after the overnight fast. Chew your food thoroughly and slowly away from the TV or other stimulants. Sit up straight when you eat. Activity has been shown to improve digestion, reduce stress and improve mood.

Correct imbalances in bacteria in your gut with a probiotic and natural anti-inflammatories can be used, such as omega-3, turmeric and slippery elm bark. You may also need to look at improving the acidity of your gut or replacing digestive enzymes if they are lacking. If you are experiencing digestion problems and wish to reduce your need for medication, read our “Wellbeing solution for healthy digestion” and our pharmacists are always available to answer your questions and offer suggestions.


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