By Karen Lyke, M.S., C.C.N., D.SC.
Old wisdom suggests that to understand something our best bet is to simply be open to what it is telling us, with all of our senses. Use eyes, ears, smell, taste, touch, along with intuition, to notice the obvious — and trust our own perceptions.
With the digestive system, or gut, its central location should tell us a lot. The gut — as a path for transformation and exchange with the outside world right through the center of our bodies — is indeed central to everything that happens in our bodies and minds.
Digestion is the transformation of not-self into essentially something, which resembles self. It’s the conversion of fats, proteins and carbohydrates into constituents, which are the same material that make up the body eating and digesting the food. Digestion is the transformation of substances with their own distinct identity into generic ‘parts’ which can be used by another living being.
Digestion: Microbes Play Key Role
Microbes are central to the process of digestion in both the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) or gut, and in the soil.
In animals, microbes facilitate the final transformation of flesh or fiber into something usable by the animal; in the soil, microbes transform the residues of plants and animals into something usable, and necessary, for the growth of plants.
If something that remains recognizable as alien or not-self is not transformed from ‘other’ to self compatible, the body responds as if to an invasion, for invasion by foreign substance is indeed what it is. Macrophages and other first-level immune cells rush to the surfaces of the intestines, gobbling up anything which seems unfamiliar. Macrophages engulf foreign substances. If the invasion is extensive, possibly because of inadequate hydrochloric acid (HCl) to denature the ingested proteins, then inflammation will result.
Inflammation can cause the connections between the cells lining the intestinal wall to break, resulting in gaps between the cells of the protective lining. Undigested protein fragments can then easily make their way into the bloodstream where an even more intense alarm is sounded. Here the body generates specific antibodies to the unfamiliar, not-self, substances, to engulf and then detonate them. Some view this as the basis of allergic reactions. The detonation, or destruction, of the foreign substances leads to inflammation. Initially it’s in the gut, but it can spread throughout the body.
Insufficient digestive juices thus can be the setup for inadequate digestion of foreign substances, specifically through their protein components.
The first response is food sensitivities and inflammation, which can then progress to ‘leaky gut’ and possibly full-fledged food allergies with widespread or whole body consequences.
There’s an old adage: nature abhors a straight line. Another reflection of this truth is that digestion meanders along changes in pH in the digestive tract. Slightly alkaline in the mouth, distinctly acidic in the stomach, again alkaline in the small intestine, then returning to acidic in the large intestine, is the pattern in humans. The acidity of the stomach is crucial to the breakdown of proteins.
The sequence of proteins is what gives each life form its physical uniqueness. The HCl of the stomach denatures proteins by breaking bonds in the cluster of amino acids making up a protein. The HCl releases the enzyme pepsin from pepsinogen for further dismantling proteins.
Proteins are not merely the foods we intentionally ingest; proteins also make up those little stowaways which might not get completely washed off foods in preparation. A healthy digestive system will generate enough HCl to digest and eradicate those stowaways — perhaps simply innocuous insects or microbes, or possibly more serious as potential pathogens or parasites.
The legendary sterilizing feature of dog spit might well have to do with strong canine capacity to generate lots of HCl to break down proteins quickly and thoroughly, to destroy potential parasites before they can take hold in the gut.
Adequate HCl serves several functions crucial to complete digestion. As part of denaturing proteins to release pepsin and activate further digestion to eliminate potential pathogens and parasites, HCl is necessary to release intrinsic factor, a protein which escorts vitamin B12 from the stomach through the travails of the small intestine for its release and absorption in the most distant part of the small intestine, the ileum.
Without adequate HCl, vitamin B12 deficiency is quite likely. Without adequate B12, numerous metabolic processes simply can’t happen, with the most severe consequences manifesting in nerve degeneration, affecting both physical and mental capacities.
Adequate HCl is also necessary to dissolve minerals into their ionic forms, also rendering them more readily absorbed and usable. Minerals serve both structural and functional purposes: calcium for bone and dental structure as well as activation of other processes; magnesium as a cofactor for every reaction in the body involving ATP — the crucial energy or ‘electricity’ for all physiological processes; iron for oxygen transport as well as ATP generation; zinc, necessary for all proteins from enzymes to tissue, hormone and neurotransmitter production and use.
Just when you think all the roles of HCl have been covered, the acidity of HCl is necessary to perpetuate other aspects of digestion. HCl provides for the release of bicarbonate (HCO3 -) which neutralizes the acidity of the HCl and helps food become chyme, as well as release of bile for fat digestion and absorption. The alkalinity of the HCO3- provides the proper environment for pancreatic enzymes to be released and function.
Without adequate hydrochloric acid, proper digestion simply can’t happen. Without proper digestion, the body fails to obtain the nutrients it needs and is likely to go into a very defensive state of being, with both physical and psychological manifestations.
So how to optimize one’s HCl production and digestion overall? The first step is to let your energies turn toward supporting you. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is active when our energies are outward, to respond to external stimuli. When fully ‘on,’ the SNS is the agent of fright, flight and fight. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) in contrast, allows our energies to be turned to self care.
The PNS is the agent of ‘rest and digest,’ restoration, repair and renewal. Since eating is an important dimension of self-renewal, the PNS, particularly through the vagus nerve, activates those organs and tissues, which sustain and renew the body. The vagus nerve serves the lungs, stomach, intestines and heart, thus affects breathing, digestion and heart rate, as well as speech (not an all-inclusive list).
In effect, the vagus nerve is ‘on’ unless excessive SNS activity turns it ‘off,’ which sad to say is too often the case in the current modern western lifestyle.
The first way to improve digestion would indeed be to ‘get out of the way,’ by reducing SNS activity.
Grace before meals, even a candle on a properly set table, deliberate time out from the hustle and bustle of the day, chewing slowly and thoroughly, eating only until 80 percent ‘full,’ all allow PNS renewal.
Many people find that a tablespoon or two of apple cider vinegar (ACV) in a small amount of water, or a cup of bone broth or other soup, calms overall while enhancing digestion. Digestive enzymes as a deliberate supplement, herbs particularly bitters to reinforce bile flow, can all be useful. A properly functioning digestive system should provide adequate mucus flow to protect the endothelial (mucosal) surfaces of the GIT, as well as activate the glands and tissues to deliver sufficient digestive HCl and enzymes.
Because the gut is indeed central to the body, and is where substances most naturally enter and leave the body, taking steps to heal the gut can promote healing everywhere else in the body.
This article appeared in the October 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.
Karen Lyke, M.S., C.C.N., D.Sc., has been studying the effects of food on human health ever since she was anorexic as a teenager. Her academic credentials include an MS in Human Nutrition, board certification as a clinical nutritionist (CCN) and a doctorate based on a study of the effects of oxalates in soy-based foodstuffs on human health. Also a Waldorf School graduate, and certified in therapeutic massage, she has taught anatomy and physiology, as well as nutrition, to students of massage therapy, acupuncture and holistic health.