The chemistry of digestion

Abdominal organs

Honor Digestion

People tend to take digestion for granted. We just assume the stomach and intestines are just going to do what we want them to do, just because we eat what ever we want, whenever we want to, how ever much we want, as fast as we want. Society, friends and family have been the role models for how to eat fast. We take big bites and don’t chew any more than is absolutely necessary, swallowing large chunks of food and are quickly shoving in the next mouth full. The act of eating fast is interpreted by the body as a stressor. We ask a lot of the gastrointestinal system. Think of some of the meals you’ve eaten and consider the big task that digestion has.

The digestive system works harder than any other system in your body. Your digestive system is taking foreign substances that enter from outside of you and extract what is useful, while at the same time, eliminating the things that are harmful. This process requires intelligence. To cultivate intelligence takes time and the gut brain needs time to assess the chemicals in a meal.

When it determines that it didn’t get enough nutrition, it signals your brain to eat more of a particular food. Or, I’ve got enough of that so I will tell the brain to stop eating. It takes approximately 20 minutes for the stomach to realize that it’s full. So if you eat a meal in less than 20 minutes your gut brain and your brain don’t have enough time to determine if you are full yet or not. Changing eating speed requires awareness and presence. As you become a slow eater, taking more time with meals, you become more aware and body wisdom can communicate effectively with you. When we put our attention to life and wake up, we start to heal.

People abuse, over work, don’t listen to and ignore their digestive system. This is why digestive aids are the #1 sold over the counter medication in America and a few European countries too. More so than pain killers. They tend to think of the body as simply an “input - output” machine. They assault digestion with poor quality food and attack it with too much food. They intensify the job of digestion by challenging it with complex food combinations.

Prescription medications besiege digestion. Digestion will also be challenged if we have poor meal timing. Food eaten late at night, when digestion is at it's weakest, causes food to be poorly digested and it is stored as fat. We attack digestion with stress; anxiety, judgement, fear and worry. Toxic nutritional beliefs assail digestion; food makes me fat, fat in food makes me fat. Food is the enemy = stress. You literally diminish digestive capacity the moment you consume “the enemy” and take it into your body. Negative emotions impact digestion quickly and dramatically.

People abuse digestion due to lack of knowledge about food and nutrition. They may not have had access to that education, they got inaccurate knowledge or they just don’t get it, or don’t choose to get it. They just eat what ever and don’t give it any thought. If they don’t know anything about food allergies, food combining, blood chemistry compatibility with foods or the ingredients and processes involved in making processed foods, they wouldn’t think to go there, because they don’t know that any of those things are something to look for. Their doctor surely isn’t going to mention it. They bombard digestion by not taking care of immunity; getting sick often due to overwork and poor nutritional choices, so they take antibiotics which depletes gastrointestinal immunity and diminish digestive capacity even further.

In my practice, one of my jobs is to help my clients learn how to honor digestion. When digestion is working well, we don’t think about it, but when digestion is not working well, it’s trying to get our attention and show us where we have gone astray. I can help a client dramatically improve their digestion and health by using Dynamic Eating Psychology and Mind-Body principles. I have the tools to achieve some fast and lasting results with clients. Even with difficult digestive challenges.

The optimum state of digestion, assimilation and calorie burning is the para-sympathetic relaxation response, which turns on full digestive power - Breathing is regular, rhythmic and deep so that turns on full blood flow and oxygenation to the gut, and enzymatic out put to the gut is maximized. The brain is a digestive organ, because when you notice and taste your food, it gets feedback and you listen to body wisdom, you notice “I eat this all the time but I don’t notice it. Now that I am paying attention I realize that it doesn’t taste good and it doesn’t feel good in my body”. Trust when something doesn’t feel good in your body. So what if a book says it is good for you. Experts tend to read their own bodies and translate their findings onto your body, thinking if it works for them, it should work for everyone. Coconut oil is a super food that works when it works and doesn’t work when it doesn’t work for people. It doesn’t digest well for some people because it’s not compatible with their blood chemistry. Some people can have coconut and they do fine. Listening to body wisdom and feedback trumps any expert, because the gold standard is “Does this food cause you unwanted symptom?” It doesn’t matter how healthy a food is said to be, if it causes you unwanted symptom, it’s not working for your body.

Machines have limitations and the digestive system also has limitations. The human body operates under a system of physical laws. Like any system, when these laws or limitations are exceeded, problems occur. Gas, indigestion, distention, sour stomach, stomach ache, headache, excess flatulence, diarrhea, constipation and acid reflux may not happen right away or become immediately evident. Many people, like my husband, have lived daily with minor problems like these for years and pay no attention to it. These symptoms are warnings or communication from the body to the mind that something is out of balance. My body was trying to get my attention and tell me to slow down, and watch what and how I was eating, but I wasn’t listening or I just didn’t understand. People don’t know what to do about these warnings, so they accept the annoyance, ignore and medicate the reoccurring symptoms. Some seek the help of doctors, but if the tests don’t find any abnormality, it continues to be ignored or medicated.

Conventional medicine doctors are better at finding acute problems than they are at treating some of the above mentioned chronic complaints. Drugs soothe these complaints for a while and are among the best selling products in pharmacies, but they don’t “cure” the cause of the symptoms and often create additional medical problems that are worse than the original complaint. Any system that is out of balance will persevere for only a while and then succumb. Even if you are not “sick”, you may not necessarily be “healthy”. Like me, you may violate the laws of your physical body and not feel the effects of it until later in life, but disease conditions like Leaky Gut, IBS, Hypoglycemia, food allergies, chemical sensitivities, Fibromyalgia, Multiple Sclerosis, ulcers, Arthritis, eczema, Crohn’s, Colitis, Diverticulitis, colon cancer, etc. are often the result of poor eating habits. For many, there is no going back and no “do overs”; their health condition is permanent. Many health problems are related to food in some way. Often times, being conscious of what we eat and how we eat, is the simple solution to all the digestive problems that plague the majority of Americans today.

Convenient foods are not advantageous for digestion or optimal nutrition. In our attempt to make eating more convenient, we have made digestion more difficult. I have learned that the order in which different foods are introduced into the digestive system during the course of a meal or series of meals, contributes enormously to achieving complete digestion, assimilation and elimination of the foods we eat. To arrange a meal so that it contributes to the harmonious flow of different foods through the digestive tract, and permits the most efficient process of digestion, it is necessary to understand the chemistry of digestion.

The chemistry of digestion

Protein has different requirements for digestion than starches and carbohydrates. Starch and carbohydrate digestion begins in the mouth, where the digestive enzymes amylase and ptyalin are present in saliva, and start to act on the food you chew. The more you chew, the more surface area of the food is exposed to the enzymes, which makes this process more efficient and gives it time to work. The process of digestion is made easier when you take smaller bites and "chew your solids until they go down like liquid". Enjoy the taste and texture of your food as you feel the enzymes liquify every bite as you chew, and do not swallow prematurely. Taking large bites causes you to swallow too early. I find it easier to avoid swallowing too soon, if I try to keep food toward the front of my mouth. This is called conscious eating. The reason this is so important is that the small intestine is not designed to break down large chunks of food, which also slows motility and produces flatulence. Once you swallow, starch and carbohydrate foods require 1-2 hours in the stomach to digest properly.

Amylase and ptyalin are both alkaline enzymes that are neutralized by stomach acid, so take your time and eat the meat last. Enzyme action stops if protein food is eaten at the same time, with carbs and starches, because when protein enters the mouth, the nerves on the tongue tell the glands in the stomach to make HCL and pepsin. If this process is delayed and the stomach environment is not flooded with HCL, when protein is absent, it gives the vegetables time to digest properly. When food leaves the stomach, it enters the alkaline the environment of the small intestine, where enzymes secreted by the pancreas can continue their digestion.

Protein is not digested in the mouth at all, but it does need to be chewed until it goes down like liquid, just the same. Protein can take as long as 3 hours to be digested by hydrochloric acid and the enzyme - pepsin, in the stomach; until all the complex proteins are broken down into smaller collections of amino acids known as peptides. Once peptides leave the stomach, they combine with peptidase enzymes produced by the pancreas, which break down into individual amino acids, making them ready for absorption. Fish is the easiest meat to digest due to its low fat and low fiber content. Poultry is moderately easy to digest, and the more dense meats like beef and pork are the hardest to digest and take the longest. Animal meats are complex, high protein, high fat, high fiber foods that require an extended stay in the stomach to be digested, which is further complicated by the addition of other foods, like cheese and bread.

Foods do not consist exclusively of either carbohydrates or protein, but meat is 50% protein and 0% carbohydrates. Potatoes are 8% protein and 90% carbohydrates. Milk is a combination of fat, protein and carbohydrates. Fruit requires very little digestion, because it contains mostly water, simple carbohydrates and the enzymes to digest them, when eaten in their most natural state.

Food combining

A sensible order of ingestion begins with water, consumed one hour before a meal. 30 minutes before a meal I eat fruit to cleanse the palate and prepare the digestive system to receive food. My meal begins with vegetables, then carbs and starches or protein. This is the plumbing theory of digestion. The laws of gravity apply here, moving the least dense foods through first. Anything with a high water content will digest easily. (Milk is a liquid, however, that contains fat, protein and carbohydrates, making it a more complex food. My children drink milk on an empty stomach, because it will slow the digestion of anything that is consumed with it.) The more dense and complex a food, the longer it takes to digest and make it's way through the digestive tract. Mixing different categories of foods and different densities, complicates digestion and slows the whole system. When my digestive system became chronically backed up, it was a breeding ground for parasites and set the stage for digestive disorders such as constipation, diarrhea and ultimately diseases like, IBS, Colitis and other degenerative diseases.

What my family eats:
Sample Breakfast: Water 1 hour before a meal, fruit 30 minutes before breakfast. Whole grains cooked into a cereal with molasses or maple syrup (no milk or nut milk) and SweetLeaf Stevia, or a vegetable and protein like eggs or meat (i.e. steak, eggs and asparagus).
Sample Snack: Water 1 hour before a meal, fruit or nuts, cheese or yoghurt, (but not a combination of yoghurt with fruit and/or nuts, or nut milks).
Sample Lunch or Dinner: Water 1 hour before a meal, and fruit 30 minutes before dinner. Salad and bread, or Vegetables and a grain like rice or other grains (bread), or Vegetables and meat or beans. Not meat AND beans. Though both are protein foods, they have different types of proteins and don't mix well chemically.

To take it to the next level, ideally meat should be eaten by itself. For lunch, we finish eating a root vegetable and a leafy green, green beans or broccoli one hour before beginning to consume the protein in the meal. This gives the vegetables time to be properly digested in an alkaline environment before protein is eaten and the chemistry of the stomach turns to acid.

Yes, I know what you are thinking - what about a "sandwich"? I try to picture in my mind an American Indian sitting down to eat a "sandwich". The hunter gatherer did not collect all four food groups and then sit down to a meal thinking, "I've got all four food groups and now I can eat." No, he ate food from the earth almost immediately, in it's most natural form and when it contained the most nutrition. Food spoils rapidly and other hungry creatures may take it from him. They had no Tupperware. Like the animals, he ate one food at a time. This is called a "mono diet". Digestion of a meal containing one food is quick, easy and efficient. Consider the "cheeses burger". Beef, cheese, bread, mayonnaise (eggs, oil), lettuce and tomato. This is a mixture of proteins, fats, carbohydrates and more. This is a strain on the digestive enzyme capacity that exhausts the pancreas, and if repeated regularly, leads to chronic, permanent, life long digestive tract diseases, and multiple system breakdowns.

Food Pyramid

The four food groups was a more recent idea that was introduced to the American consumer in the 1950's. This concept has not served the human digestive system well these past few generations. I believe the sandwich was developed as a convenient way to include all four food groups in an easy to pack, fit in your hand, all in one meal. The human anatomy has not changed significantly in the past several thousand years, and requires the exact same chemical processes to digest foods as our ancestors. What has changed significantly in the past 80 years is how and what we eat. The results have been clearly seen and its effects on the human anatomy are devastating.

Oil slows the digestion of everything that is eaten along with it, inhibits stomach motility and delays gastric secretions. Oils and butters are fats, that when consumed with nuts, dairy, eggs, meat, starches or carbohydrates, creates an extremely complex meal. A typical fast food lunch is super sized, and consists of french fries, which is a starch that is saturated with oil. So, first the oil must be digested before the starch. A milk shake and a hamburger, add insult to injury. The only exception that lemon may be combined with olive oil to make a lemon and olive oil dressing to be served on green vegetables, because the chlorophyll counteracts the depressive effects of the oil on the digestive processes.

We always eat fruits alone, on an empty stomach - 30 minutes before a meal, to cleanse the palate and prepare the digestive system. I eat sweet fruits together and acid fruits together, because the two do not mix well at all.

I found that it is best to eat one protein food at a time, from a group of foods. Beans, nuts and grains are high in protein, but they are also high in starch. Protein from grains is considered one category, protein from beans is another category and nuts are yet another category. Mixing several different types of proteins together in one meal is just too complex and unnecessary. I used to make a chili using ground beef, beans, pasta and cheese. It didn't settle well with my husbands digestive system at all. Too many protein foods exhausts the body and the digestive juices. My husband felt tired, even sleepy, after consuming such a complex meal. Putrefaction develops from undigested proteins and chronic abusers can develop colon, liver, skin, and other health problems, so I changed the way I cook for my family to avoid some very serious and permanent health conditions.

Acid foods, like pineapple, do not combine well with acid for the digestion of protein. In fact, they actually limit HCL production in the stomach by presenting the system with mixed signals. The juices needed to digest pineapple or orange juice are not the same as those for digesting meat. Fruit acids do not activate pepsin, and in fact, inhibit it. So, a breakfast of eggs, cheese, bacon or sausage, fried potatoes or English muffin, and orange juice or pineapple juice is a digestive nightmare. When I was younger, I regularly consumed such a breakfast and now I can see how my digestive system broke down as a result of my food combination choices.

Liquids are easier to digest, and my meals can now be enjoyed even though I have weak digestion, simply by making them into a more liquified form. I am not talking about juicing, but about pureeing. Whipping a solid into a fluid does not make it a liquid. It is still a solid food, only in very tiny pieces. The higher the solid content of a liquid, the harder it is to digest, however, baby food consistency meals are more easily digested and are assimilated more completely. A meal of vegetables and meat is an impossible task for my digestive system when served on a plate and eaten with a knife and fork. They come out of me the way I swallowed them, only after causing constipation, distention and many other unpleasant complaints. My difficulty is caused by IBS and other digestive diseases, so my only hope of getting the nutrition I need was to switch to a 100% pureed diet. Juices go right into the intestines. Pureed fruit (which has the fiber and nutrients contained in the whole fruit; skin included), and pureed meals spend very little time in the stomach, as compared to the chewed version. 95% of their nutrition is absorbed and assimilated. I cannot digest my food, so I must get my nutrition from pureed fresh fruits, snacks and meals. Foods that are easy to digest include all melons, green vegetables, starchy vegetables and vegetable soups, all salads, peaches, plums, and whole gains. I don't juice fruits and vegetable, unless I am extremely ill. Juicing removes the valuable pulp and skin, which is needed by the body for many reasons, not the least of which is to keep the sugar from being metabolized too quickly and spiking the blood glucose levels. The soluble fiber in fruit that increases motility and the many valuable nutrients that are just under the skin are lost during juicing. When I must do a juice fast, I don't do it for more than a few days. I continue to drink water, because the juice is a meal, and I do not consider it a beverage. This keeps my body well hydrated.

Cooking: Some vegetables are best eaten raw; like salad greens. Some vegetables need to be lightly steamed to soften their tough fiber, like the broccoli family veggies. Other vegetables can go either way, like spinach. The art of cooking is to know how long to cook a food to achieve an easily digestible meal, while retaining the nutrition the ingredients possess. Less cooking is often better, but what I mean by that is not the length of time it cooks, but how high the temperature is. When I was a child pressure cookers were the big thing and my mother would often pressure cook a meal and have it ready to eat in a short amount of time, but it was over cooked due to the very high heat under pressure. The same meal cooked on low in a crock pot will retain the nutrition, texture and color. These are signs of viability.

Acid - Alkaline balance: Dr. Hay's observed that people with more acidic body fluids were more likely to be ill. He identified a pH range of acidity and alkalinity. A pH of 7.4 to 7.5, which is slightly alkaline, is associated with good health. However, a pH below 7.1 is increasingly acidic. I measure my pH by checking urine and saliva with a pH test kit, and calculating the combined average. At my most critically ill point, my pH was 4.5. This is seriously acidic and was accompanied by a very low consistent body temperature of 95.9. I was always "freezing", grouchy, sensitive, exhausted, suffered with numerous aches and pains, headaches, insomnia and poor digestion. I learned that the metabolism does not work efficiently when the body gets too cold and acidic.

Many factors affect the pH balance of body fluids. When foods are metabolized, acids are produced that are neutralized by the alkaline salts (carbonates) of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium. So the intake and absorption of these mineral salts is vital for acid-alkaline balance, as is the type of food that is eaten. Survival depends upon maintaining blood pH within a very narrow margin. Consuming large amounts of acidic foods causes the body to take calcium from the bones to neutralize the acid, which will degrade bone health over time, ultimately leading to osteoporosis and other serious health problems. Foods containing large amounts of chlorine, phosphorus, sulfur, and nitrogen, which includes most animal products, tend to be acid forming. Citrus fruits are acid, but have an alkalinizing affect on the body. Foods rich in alkaline salts, like fresh fruit, vegetables, most nuts and legumes tend to be alkaline forming. The exceptions are olives, and broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collards, turnips, radish, mustard greens and watercress, which are high is sulfur. Meat, fish, eggs, butter walnuts and hazelnuts are acid forming. Milk is mildly alkalinizing in the stomach, but acidifying once metabolized. Exercise also makes the body more acidic. Cigarette smokers typically have a high acid level in their urine, but some of my resources have stated that cravings appear to decrease on a more alkaline diet. Breathing deep makes the body fluids more alkaline.

A word about distilled water. I have heard conflicting reports from both sides of the issue about the health benefits of drinking distilled water. I have 3 water distillers I no longer use, and will never use again. For two years I distilled all my water and noticed that a white slime covered the inside of the water tank when it was empty at the end of the process. I had to use a special cleaner to clean the stainless steel of the deposits that remained. I was adding alkaline drops to the distilled water, but my pH kept getting more acidic. I was getting sicker and sicker. It came to mind to test the ph of the distilled water with and without the alkaline drops. My pH was dropping to match that of the water I was drinking. I was shocked! I immediately stopped distilling water and finished the bottle of alkaline drops. Within a few weeks my pH started to improve and in 4 years it was back to normal, along with my body temperature, thyroid function and a few other things. The bottom line is that, the white slime was the minerals, which were in my well water. The water that comes from our well goes through a mineral bed water filter system before it comes in the house, and has a neutral pH at the faucet. When the alkalinizing minerals were removed, it left the water very acidic; 4.5. There are other beverages, like soda, that are just as acidic. I became what I ingested.

The focus of my diet these past several years has been to consume plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables that are naturally alkalinizing and high in many vital nutrients.

The more refined, processed or cooked a food is, the less nutrition it will provide and the more acidic it is to the body. I have learned the hard way, that it is best to prepare simple meals that contain raw or lightly cooked whole foods, instead of overcooked or processed foods for my family. Refined, high-sugar foods are a new invention and foreign to the digestive system. They contain high concentrations of fast-releasing sugars that the body simply cannot adapt to and deal with. They make blood sugar levels spike, requiring all sorts of hormones to swing into emergency action in order to restore balance. They also feed undesirable microorganisms that can overpopulate the gut and cause serious system breakdowns and disease conditions. Sugar, often in the form of high fructose corn syrup, actually causes a desire to eat more, which are cravings and is often confused with hunger.

A word about "Organic" processed foods. I used to purchase boxed macaroni and cheese, canned soups, cereal in a box and snack foods at the health food store, thinking that they were somehow superior to foods at the regular store in the same type of packaging, because the package said, "organic". Then, one day, I realized that the organic version was just as processed and a dead food, making it no different from the non-organic version, but at three times the price. The only real difference I could see was that the organic prepackaged, processed foods did not contain the preservatives and artificial ingredients that I found on the labels of the non-organic prepackaged, processed foods. In my opinion, from a nutritional point of view, I think it would be more beneficial to eat the box and throw the food away.

This was another reminder for me to shop the outside edge of the grocery store and leave the center isles alone, for the most part.

For my husband, a proper diet has become the best solution for resolving his acid reflux.

Diet myths: I have heard people recommend that my husband drink milk before bed to ease acid reflux, but milk causes reflux during sleep. The problem was what and how much he ate at dinner. Eating a large meal produces excess stomach acid. Milk may feel like a quick fix, but milk also has a rebound action that eventually encourages the secretion of more stomach acid. I adjusted his diet so that he is now eating a smaller meal, no less than two hours before bed. He used to have a bedtime snack, but he has learned that it is important not to eat before bed, because digestion stops when the body is in a horizontal position. He does not avoid acid fruits or spicy food, because they longer give him problems. The only behavioral changes that reduce his symptoms of acid reflux is to eat smaller meals throughout the day and elevate his head while sleeping. My husband realized that it was important for him to balance his body pH, if he ever hoped to correct his acidic condition. So, he stopped drinking sodas, drinks only water and cut back on grains. We use Celtic Sea Salt in our food, because it contains the minerals needed to restore our body fluids. Adequate hydration is critical as well, so we carry water with us everywhere we go.

Acid reflux Diet: My husband complained of acid reflux daily. He used over the counter products in an attempt to relieve the problem, but they didn't really help. When I changed the way I prepare meals, making them smaller and less complex, his symptoms subsided. I have discovered that simple, smaller meals, eaten more frequently through out the day are less stressful for the digestive system and requires less acid for digestion. He has learned a great deal about how to eat consciously, judiciously and apply common sense. According to Dr. Peter J. D Adamo's "Eat Right for Your Blood Type" book, O's should not consume too much acidic food in the same day. My husband, who is has O type blood, became more aware of what he was eating and realized that when he eats tomatoes in chilly for lunch and then tomatoes in salad with spaghetti and tomato sauce for dinner, he suffers terribly with acid reflux.

I prepare meals that include foods which are high in complex carbohydrates with vegetables and vegetables with high protein foods, but never proteins and carbohydrates. When my family sits down at the dining room table to eat, we consume our vegetables first and then carbs, or vegetables and then proteins in the order of eating.
I avoid purchasing hydrogenated oils, soy, canola oil, and the like. I never prepare greasy or deep fried foods. I use only cold pressed extra virgin olive oil and real butter.
I stop eating when my stomach is half full or about 2 cups of food. Once I feel full, I am over-full. I must remind myself, "Don't take another bite!" Practicing eating consciously helps me to get a feel for how much food is too much, and how much is just right. I never go back for a second helping.
I avoid alcohol.
I eat in a seated position and don't lay down after I eat. Better yet, I take a casual 15 minute walk with my dog.
I chew my food well, drinking my solids and chewing my liquids. This means chewing my solids until they go down like liquid and chewing my liquids as if they were solids. This way my food digests more efficiently and spends less time in the stomach.

Drinks that cause acid reflux include soda, alcoholic beverages; wine, beer, mixed drinks and milk. When & where to eat is the subject of the next article. I have learned that, when it comes to good digestion, everything matters. It isn't enough for me to obey the laws of chemistry that govern digestion. There are other factors that are significant in my effort to achieve optimum digestion. Attitude, emotions, habits, lifestyle, timing and the environment all contribute to how my food is digested and the efficiency of my stomach.

Digestion is not only about getting food in and out. It is about the absorption and assimilation of nutrients for the construction and repair of cells, and the nourishment of the whole body. This process involves not only what, where, how, when and why I eat, but also my consciousness during the process of consuming my meals.

Tomorrow is a new day with NO mistakes.
Today will have passed and you can't do it over, but tomorrow you can do better.
Learn from your mistakes and your successes.
Go forward with a smile, eyes wide open and head raised.
Because when you awake in the morning, you have another chance to live, love and laugh.