Special health series part three: Getting to the core of our digestive health

We like to think of our digestive system as just that tangle of intestines and organs in our belly area. But Nancy Raymond of Your Optimal Health Solutions puts it simply—if our gut is not healthy, then our entire body is not healthy.

IMG_7463“Gut health affects joint health, immune function—70 to 80 percent of your immune function is in the gut!—energy level, mood, weight control, complexion, mental focus, respiratory function and more,” she said.

So since our digestive health extends far beyond our abdomen, how can we learn to add belly-boosters to our daily health plan?

Welcome back to the final piece of our special series journey!

First things first, what makes up our digestive system?

Digest this!

Like every component of our body, the digestive system too is a complex one.

But here are some of the dots that will help you connect the bigger picture of the system that inadvertently becomes the center of our whole health and biological balance.

(From “Biology, Oakland University Edition,” by Brooker, Widmaier, Graham and Stiling, a McGraw Hill book.)

Digestion is the process of our body breaking down the food we eat into smaller molecules or pieces to be used as energy by the trillions of cells that make up our whole being.

And it begins with ingestion (or feasting!) starting at our mouths, traveling down through our esophagus (in our throat) and into our stomach. Here, gastric acid plays a huge role in breaking this mess of food into smaller pieces to be sent on to the coastal highway known as our intestines. (Did you know that digestion actually begins in the mouth? We have many digestive enzymes (or little converters that help break food pieces down to the nutrients we need) right in our saliva!)

Photo courtesy of WebMD.com.

Photo courtesy of WebMD.com.

So, our gastrointestinal (GI) tract or our gut is made of our small and large intestines. These are probably the leading scorers for our internal health team!

The small intestine is where the magic happens.

Most of our digestion takes place in our small intestine involving mineral and vitamin absorption—a key part!

(These are also the intestines that stretch so amazingly far when laid out and measured—about 20 feet! Nothing small about that!)

Just to take it up a notch—because you health warriors want to learn as much as you can about your body—our intestines are lined with what is called villi.

Villi are small, finger-like projections in our intestines. They help expand the surface area to increase odds that the food passing through will meet those workhorse digestive enzymes and be broken down into nutrients to be absorbed by our bodies.

(If our intestines are the highways, villi are like the exits every mile, helping the nutrients—or cars—find their rightful location.)

Might sound complex, but just know that these villi speed up the process so that the odds are good we will get the fuel our body needs, especially when we are eating well.)

Our large intestine (named for being large in diameter; it is actually much shorter in length—only about 5 feet—than the small intestine) absorbs water and minerals from the food we eat and gets the indigestible leftovers ready to be taken out on garbage day. (Hey, everybody poops!)

Some additional teammates in digestion include our liver (which produces bile to help with digesting fat), our gallbladder (that also produces bile), our pancreas (secreting those infamous digestive enzymes when needed) and of course, the waste management segment known as our rectum.

Eating for me

Just how do we support proper digestive function so our entire body can benefit and be healthy?

Here is a compiled list with input from Anne Baker of Nourish Holistic Nutrition, Nancy Raymond of Your Optimal Health Solutions and Teresa Jungling of Living Natural Today.

(These suggested items are specific for our GI health but don’t forget to visit the other recommended foods earlier in our series as those also apply to a happy digestive system!)

  • Fermented foods: Like sauerkraut are great for our intestinal health because they feed the beneficial bacteria residing in our gut. These bacteria are crucial for breaking down food and absorbing those vitamins and minerals.

—Raymond reminds us that healthy gut flora (a biological name for those helpful bacteria) strengthen our immune system, lower inflammation (which leads to chronic disease) and help with calorie metabolism.

  • Naturally fermenting your food: Such as fermenting your own veggies with salt water or yogurt through lacto fermentation.

Baker suggests shredding your veggies and putting them in large mason jars with the solution. Sites like Pinterest and www.WildFermentation.com have great resources on how to do this.

“There’s trial and error with it,” Baker said, “but it’s kind of fun to experiment with.”

  • High fiber foods: Such as whole grains, fruits and lots of veggies are critical for optimum gut health (and in turn, overall health) because they keep our bowels moving (no one wants to carry around a bunch of poop!), and they provide the prebiotics (or food) for those helpful bacteria so they can function properly.

—It’s all teamwork around here!

  • Probiotics: Foods that come packed full of probiotics or beneficial bacteria such as yogurt help to replenish these healthful bacteria if we are low—from eating bad food!

—Raymond suggests coconut yogurt to those sensitive to dairy. (Excess dairy causes inflammation so don’t go overboard with the yogurt!)

  •  Sprouts: There are lots of them! Brussel sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, mung bean sprouts and more are a good way to provide “live” foods for kids and those picky eaters, Baker said.

—You can add sprouts to lunchtime wraps or toss them in salads.

  • Raw apple cider vinegar: You can add a teaspoon of raw apple cider vinegar to 4 ounces of water and sip on it, Baker said. This really helps to alleviate acid reflux and excess flatulence in many and has no side effects like some medications.

—Raw apple cider vinegar can also be used to whip up a healthy ranch dressing that you can find via Pinterest!

  • Avoid toxins: Toxins are found in so many things today, Jungling says, so if you can manage to eliminate some of them from your daily routine such as those found in food, your gut health will surely benefit.

Jungling is a woman who has worked tirelessly to regain her health through her eating and has benefited tremendously in the past couple of years from doing so. Be sure to check out her regular posts on what she is learning along the way on www.LivingNaturalToday.com.

Thank you!

Well, we have made it to the end of our trip together and I want to thank you for joining us on this healthful tour of our body! Don’t forget to visit our section in the future, as we will surely tackle more ways we can eat to obtain optimum health!

Share your feedback with reporter Jen Bucciarelli (JenBucciarelli@gmail.com) so we can cover the health news you want to read!

Until next time, be well!

About Jen Bucciarelli

Veggie lover and aspiring word chef, reporter Jen Bucciarelli covers all things health and medicine for Rochester Media and The Community Edge. She is always on the hunt for local experts who can help improve the lives of our readers. Send her a note at JenBucciarelli@gmail.com.

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