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Understanding Digestion

Sevendeman

According to Roberta Benson, nutritional specialist at Mastel’s Health Foods, in St. Paul, “When people understand their body, they love their body and they take better care of it.” Benson helps her customers understand how their bodies function beyond the basic biology lesson. Having a bit of understanding can go a long way with how we take care of our body.

Most people have the basic understanding of digestion. We eat food and the body processes it to give us energy. However, digestion is more complex than that. There are five stages to the digestion process, each one dependent on the other before being optimal to run smoothly.

Stage One. Digestion starts in the brain. When we smell, taste or see food, our hypothalamus is activated. This gland turns the electrical signals from our nervous system (our brain) into chemical signals. These signals tell the body to start producing enzymes, salivary amylase in the mouth and hydrochloric acid in the stomach.

When the brain sees food—real or an advertisement—it gets to work making you hungry. Ever notice the giant soda fizzing on the screen during the movie preview? Next time, take note of how many people take a drink right after or get up to get a drink. We can thank our hypothalamus for that.

Stage Two. Slowly chew food to avoid choking hazards and to be sure it’s broken down into small enough pieces for our bodies to digest. Our teeth, jaw and tongue do the initial breakdown by mashing and breaking the food into smaller particles. Since our brain activated the salivary glands in stage one, the extra saliva starts the breakdown process for carbohydrates, sugars and starches.

Another benefit of chewing food slowly, sometimes overlooked in this fast-paced world, is it helps us be “present” with our food for optimal digestion.

When we are stressed, our body goes into the fight-flight-freeze response. In this mode, our brain  is busy preparing to react to the stressor; it cannot distinguish between different stressors—upcoming deadlines, public speaking and the myriad states of daily stress are all the same. To “protect” us, the brain will divert blood supplies away from the gut to the lungs, legs and heart—readying for the escape. Therefore, our body is not going to be able to produce the compounds needed to break down and digest food properly. Slowing down and being present helps our body get out of this flight response mode and back on track for digesting.

Stage Three. This stage is all about the stomach’s job. The stomach has two processes. First, it continues the mechanical breakdown by churning the food, but there's also the chemical breakdown. This is an acid bath that breaks up proteins and kills bad bacteria and parasites from foods.

You can give your stomach support in this stage with supplements and enzyme-rich foods, including raw fruits and vegetables along with fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut or fermented vegetables, all great for supporting optimal digestion.

Stage Four. Most of the nutrient absorption occurs in the small intestine. This is where probiotics support the digestion process. The broken down food will slowly start to trickle into the small intestine through a valve from the stomach. The pancreas then shoots more enzymes to further break the food down. The gallbladder also supports this process by introducing bile to emulsify and help break down fats. Anything that isn’t absorbed by the three sections of the small intestine continues on to the final stage of digestion—the large intestine.

Stage Five. The ileocecal valve leads to the large intestine. Anything that wasn’t absorbed up to this point is formed into stool. Most of the water and salt are reabsorbed back in the body. The digestion stage ends with the release of the body waste. Many products in the grocery store offer items that include ingredients our bodies just can’t absorb. Speaking with a health professional about your bathroom breaks might be embarrassing, but can tell them a lot about how effectively our body is using the foods we are consuming.

Albert Einstein was famously quoted for saying, “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” He wasn’t addressing food or body matters, but the message rings true regardless. When we consider these five stages of digestion, we understand a bit deeper than before. It may help us achieve something else—a sense of peace and love with our body.

Mastel’s is located at 1526 St. Clair Ave., St Paul. For more information, call 651-690-1692 or visit Mastels.com. See ad, page XX.  

Rebecka Lassen is an author, writer, professional speaker and holistic healer. She recently completed the requirements for Integrative Health and Healing, at Anoka Ramsey Community College, by serving as an intern for Natural Awakenings Twin Cities magazine. For more information, visit RebeckaLassen.com. 

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