You are what you eat, right? Wrong! You are what you digest? Wrong again!
You are what you absorb.
Absorption is when nutrients go from within the pipe-like lumen of the gastrointestinal tract into your body. Only when that step of metabolism is functioning properly do you reap the benefits of a healthy meal and lifestyle.
Our overall health is impacted primarily by what we put inside our bodies. Think of food as information for your brain and body. When information provides positive instruction, then we can function well.
It’s estimated that over 70% of our immune system is generated from our gut. Researchers have dubbed our stomach the 2nd brain because of how informative it is to the rest of our bodies. When nutrient-rich foods enter, a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones are created that disperse throughout the body with signals involved in mood regulation and hormone stabilization.
Conversely, a high-fructose corn syrup beverage (lookin’ at you Coke) will insight a cascade of signals that promote hunger, anxiety, and poor decision making. A calorie from a carrot does not equal a calorie from a Coke.
Everybody is different, of course. Personalization of diets can be very impactful to ensure the specific needs are met. Tailored advice can be based on genetics, current health status, and other lifestyle factors like immune and detox status as well as sleep and stress.
Those are epigenetic factors- information from your environment that affects your physiology by influencing your genetics. For example, a person with BCMO1 gene will have a harder time converting vitamin A from orange and red vegetables to the form within your body that aids in eye health. A simple way to bypass your genetics is to eat the form that directly aids in eye health, found in animal products like eggs. Another way to ensure your digestion and absorption pathways for vitamin A are elevated is to eat tomatoes that have been chopped or cooked- increasing their absorptive abilities.
How can we optimize our gut health to ensure proper digestion and absorption?
· Strengthen the gut integrity.
The lining of our gastrointestinal tract can become leaky, allowing other particles to pass through when they aren’t supposed to, which creates systemic immune disorders like chronic allergies or autoimmunity. Zinc, glutamine, and collagen help build up the barrier within our system to allow only the nutrients we want to pass through.
· Eat foods that promote distension (fiber) and density (fat and protein).
These not only create the stomach acid required for digestion but also relay messages of satisfaction to your brain. Without those messages, your brain and body can get stuck in “storage” mode rather than “usage.” That means storing fats rather than burning them for fuel.
· Improve digestion through protein and zinc that increase hydrochloric acid (HCl).
Many people are low in HCl not only because it naturally decreases with age, but also because factors like poor diet or stress diminish its production. Practice mindful eating. Every meal should, when possible, be eaten slowly and with intention. Breathing techniques help, as well as sitting down to eat rather than eating while driving, jogging, or the many other ways you see people eat these days!
· Lastly, check for other factors that disrupt digestion and absorption like toxins: mold, bacteria, or parasites.
Other toxins can include stress levels or NSAIDS (anti-inflammatory pills). If stress is present, then no matter how nutritious the meal, it will not be adequately absorbed. The power of the parasympathetic tone “rest/digest” is essential for metabolism. Constantly stuck in the sympathetic “fight/flight” will decrease your ability to assimilate nutrients into your body.
Gut health protocol should involve removing toxins, replacing enzymes or acids, repairing the gut lining, repopulating the microbiome, and rebalancing your lifestyle factors. These steps can be done concomitantly.
An example would be removing triggering/allergic foods, then replacing HCl or digestive enzymes, repopulating with pre- and probiotics, then repairing the lining with zinc and collagen, and finally, rebalance your stress system with gratitude lists, breathing techniques or simple silent walks. A useful tip- have bone broth 2-3 times per week to get the aforementioned supportive nutrients.
Proper gut health is vital for digestion and absorption as outlined above but also integral to overall health and minimizing disease risk. Localized issues would include gas, bloat, alternating constipation/diarrhea, pain, or neurological problems like poor memory, brain fog, or anxiety and moodiness.
How can one region of our body inform so many systems and symptoms?
Nutrients like biotin, vitamin K, and vitamin B12 are created within the gut. Biotin works with vitamin C to boost our immunity and the ability to ward off viruses or bacteria. Vitamin K is
integral to bone and skin health. Low levels of vitamin K and wrinkles are highly correlated. Vitamin B12 and energy levels go hand in hand as well. Functional nutrition views the body as a whole web-like system with a dynamic interplay of genetics, environment, lifestyle, and diet. With no single part functioning autonomously, what you eat informs your entire body.
-Emily Brown, MS, IFNCP