What the heck is digestion anyway?

*Note from Sarah: Please welcome the newest member of the EP Team, Janece Matsko!!! You can find out more about Janece over at her blog, Grain Free Jane and be sure to find her on Facebook! Please enjoy Janece’s extremely informative first post:

What the heck is digestion anyway?

All energy on earth comes from the sun. Plants have a unique ability to convert this energy into matter in the form of carbohydrates. Humans have the ability to gain energy from a wide variety of sources. By consuming plants, or the animals that eat plants, our bodies can also harness the power of the sun as energy for the action and potential of life. However, the amount of energy and nutrition we receive from food is dependent on a complex and integrated system of digestion and metabolism.

Step 1: Food Selection:

The digestion process actually begins long before you put a bite in your mouth. Choosing a wide variety of nutrient dense foods is the first step in a healthy digestive process. Purchasing high quality fruits, vegetables, and animal proteins ensures that more nutrients are available from the beginning. Avoiding foods that contain toxins or overly processed ingredients is equally important. Raw ingredients will often contain more enzymes and phytonutrients than cooked foods.  However, cooking some foods can make certain vitamins and minerals more available for absorption during digestion.  Extensive processing will remove almost all the nutrients and should be avoided even if they have been enriched.

Step 2: The Breakdown 
Thoroughly chewing your food begins the digestion of food by mashing it into small pieces. The mouth is also responsible for beginning the digestion of simple carbohydrates. The chewing motion also stimulates the muscles contractions in the intestines and triggers the release of additional enzymes farther down the line.
The highly acidic environment of the stomach is the second step in digesting complex carbohydrates and the first step in digesting fats and proteins. Enzymes such as Pepsin are activated by hydrochloric acid to break proteins into smaller peptides. Low stomach acid can impair the function of these enzymes and the overall absorption of protein. Supplementing with Pepsin or Betaine HCl can improve stomach acid and protein. Read this post for important safety information about HCL supplementation.
The gallbladder is the unsung hero of digestion. It releases alkaline salts to neutralize the acidic, partially digested food as it exits the stomach.  It also adds important enzymes to break down fats and proteins. Rapid weight loss from bypass surgery or extreme diets can cause damage to the gallbladder.
A wide variety of bacteria and enzymes live in your intestines. In fact, the DNA of our bacteria microbiome outnumbers our own DNA 10 to 1. In exchange for a safe home and plentiful food, these tiny helpers turn any remaining proteins and fats into amino acids and fatty acids so they can be absorbed through the intestinal lining and into the blood stream. Water, vitamins and minerals are also absorbed in the intestines. An over abundance of certain bacteria and yeast in the large intestine can putrefy any remaining sugars and proteins, releasing toxins and gas. Another reason to keep stomach acid levels and intestinal walls in healthy conditions.

Step 3: Absorption
Cell Membrane:
Nutrients cannot pass through the membrane of cells along the digestive track until they have been completely broken down into the most basic components. Some nutrients pass through the fatty cell wall easily, while others require energy and specific protein transporters.
Throughout the body there are proteins that act on a microscopic level as catalysts in the breaking down and building up of nutrients. If a food is difficult to digest it may mean you lack the necessary enzyme to fully break it down. For example, lactose needs to be broken into galactose and glucose by the lactase enzyme before it can be absorbed. Enzymes and their functions will receive an entire post to themselves in the coming months.
Leaky Gut:
Sometimes gaps can form between cells in the small intestine. Large protein chains can sneak through these gaps and into the blood stream, bypassing the filter of the cell walls. The body sees these proteins as intruders and triggers an inflammation response to attack them. If the leaky gut is not corrected, the inflammation response becomes more severe and antigens are created to activate the immune system whenever the targeted proteins are present in the body. This precess will keep you healthy when you come in contact with a virus you have fought off before, like chicken pox. Unfortunately, some proteins, such as gliadin in wheat gluten, have a similar structure to proteins that naturally occur in the body. If the immune system creates an antigen against a food protein like gliadin, it may inadvertently attack proteins in the body that have important functions, such as repairing cells of the intestinal wall. This is how an autoimmune condition can be created.

Step 4: Metabolism
The process of combining nutrients to create essential body compounds. Glucose molecules are combined to be stored as glycogen and amino acids are combined to build proteins for muscles and cell functions. Anabolism always requires energy and an enzyme catalyst.
The process of breaking apart larger compounds to access the energy stored in the chemical bonds or to recycle old proteins into new structures. These reactions release energy in the form of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) and usually require enzyme catalysts Hormone Regulation:
Metabolism is influenced by a complex balance of hormones that send signals to store energy as fat or release nutrients for muscular action.

Step 5: Eliminating Waste
The urinary system regulates the retention of water, minerals, salt and other electrolytes. The kidneys are also responsible for filtering some toxins, the excess nitrogen from protein metabolism and balancing pH of the blood and bodily fluids.
Insoluble fiber and any nutrients that were not broken down or absorbed in the intestines become waste in the form of feces. The frequency, form, and consistency of the body’s waste can provide important information about where there my be issues in digestion and metabolism.
Oxygen is an important part of the metabolic pathway and carbon dioxide is created as a waste product of this process. Proper breathing techniques can improve metabolism, reduce stress and improve blood pressure.

For more information and articles like this, please visit my website at GrainFreeJane.com

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