Digestive function is crucial to our health and keeps us feeling well. Healthy digestion is our body orchestrating an intricate process where many organs and body functions work together to break down our food. It is our body's way of extracting nutrients necessary to survive, using them to support our bodies, and eliminating what we no longer need. Our body is constantly working for us whether we feel it or not, and digestion is one part of the many things our body does for us.
Digestion plays many roles in our bodies. While it is often easy to believe digestion is solely important in digesting food, healthy digestive function is also essential for other parts of our body, like endocrine health, immune health, cardiovascular health, detoxification, and our nervous system. Healthy digestion is foundational for these areas of our health to function correctly, relying on it. Let's take a look at these areas and how digestion supports them individually:
The endocrine system consists of our hormones. Hormones are regulatory substances that are all about communication, transferring information and instructions to different cells of our body. Hormones are transported through the blood, impacting almost every cell in our body! There are so many ways hormones play a role in our health; some are responsible for regulating our metabolism and energy balance, sleep and wake cycle, and growth, development, and reproduction (Nutritional Therapy Association, 2018). Our endocrine glands produce messages from the gland to other parts of the body to communicate with them effectively. While there are many signs of healthy endocrine function, some are sleeping restfully, normal cycle health (in women), and adequate energy levels.
Sometimes, however, our endocrine health isn't always optimal. It can be relatively easy to notice if you have a hormonal imbalance with symptoms such as acne, sleep issues, insulin resistance, irregular cycles, etc. Basically, poor endocrine health doesn't feel good! However, good digestion can be the hero in scenarios like this. So, before you look anywhere, start with digestion first.
Digestion works closely with several organs that produce hormones. If we aren't breaking down our food properly, we won't be able to make hormones the way we should. Our body and its functions depend on the fuel we give it. If we cannot utilize the food we eat, our endocrine health will suffer. Focusing on healthy digestion will positively influence endocrine health and allow the food we eat to fuel endocrine glands so that they can make healthy hormones.
Immune system Our immune system is a complex area of our health that helps maintain good health and fight off invaders. It is our body's way of keeping us safe and strong when we come into contact with harmful stimuli like pathogens, toxins, and irritants. Some signs of a healthy immune system include recovering from sickness, good gut health, and sometimes getting sick less frequently.
Immune health can feel complicated, especially when you're sick often and consistently deal with allergies. The less able our bodies are to combat irritants and invaders, the harder it becomes to fight them off, resulting in getting sick, skin issues like hives and eczema, inflammation, and allergies. The good news is that having symptoms of poor immune health doesn't have to be your normal and once again, digestion can support us with this!
We might not always think there is a connection, but digestion plays an essential role in our immune system. Our digestive system acts like an army defending our body when invaders attack, constantly scanning for threats. When we have a healthy digestive system, stomach acid (HCl) and pepsin act as a barrier of defense that neutralizes harmful pathogens that enter our body. With this, HCl and pepsin can attack pathogens before they can go any further. If by chance pathogens move further, protective mucosal tissue rich in antimicrobial proteins and lysosomes in our small and large intestines provides a physical barrier to stop pathogens from invading (Nutritional Therapy Association, 2018).
You see, our body wants to support us and keep us safe. Allowing yourself rest in times like these is important, but you could also take action with your digestion. Digestive health should be your first starting point! Focusing on healthy digestion can positively influence our immune health and allow it to do its job effectively.
The cardiovascular system consists of blood, blood vessels, and the heart. Cardiovascular health goes hand in hand with our overall health. Our cardiovascular system's health depends on several other areas of our body working optimally. In a poorly functioning cardiovascular system, we might see poor heart health or high cholesterol symptoms. While supporting these symptoms through therapeutic foods and healthy eating is beneficial, we must look deeper into digestion first.
It might not seem all too obvious that healthy digestion can support cardiovascular health but keeping the foundation of digestion can be exceptionally effective for cardiovascular function. For starters, our heart needs amino acids for healthy function. To make those amino acids available for the heart, we first need to be able to digest them well. We also need adequate stomach pH levels to break down protein and absorb the nutrients in our food that are essential for cardiovascular health. Additionally, proper liver and gallbladder functioning is required to enable the digestion of the healthy fats we eat so that we can use them for optimal health (Nutritional Therapy Association, 2018).
If your goal is to be heart-healthy or lower cholesterol, absolutely include a nutrient- dense, whole-food diet. Along with that, addressing how you digest your food is crucial. If you want the benefits of the food you eat, you want to digest them well. Focusing on optimal digestion is the gateway to healthier cardiovascular health.
Detoxification Our body is consistently detoxifying toxins, internally occurring like poorly digested food, bacteria, and stress hormones, and external toxins like pollution and chemicals. Most of the time, we aren't even aware of how hard our body works to eliminate the things that could potentially hurt our health. Our skin, lymph system, urinary, respiratory, cardiovascular, and digestive systems all work to detoxify our body. Yet again, digestion is a primary component of detoxifying. Without proper digestion in place, detoxifying becomes more challenging for our bodies.
For example, your intestines are one of the most important organs when talking about detoxification. The gastrointestinal tract scans the food we eat for invaders to keep us safe by detoxifying poorly digested fermented toxins, filtering food and bacteria, and eliminating toxins from our bodies before they can harm us (Nutritional Therapy Association, 2018). The liver, another vital organ in detoxification, helps to filter toxins from the blood and neutralize them. These neutralized toxins then pass through the gallbladder for elimination. The first step to supporting our body's detoxification is to focus on good digestion. If a person isn't digesting their food well, their body's detox pathways will not detox properly, thus causing a cascade of issues. They must support how their food is broken down through the north- to-south digestion process.
Nervous System Regarding digestion, our nervous system plays a significant role in the show. The nervous system contributes to several functions within our digestion, including nutrient handling, gastrointestinal motility, and gastric acid secretion (Furness, 2012). Our stress levels determine how and if we digest our food. To make the most of the food we fuel ourselves with, we must be in a parasympathetic state. Without the rest and digest state, digestion will not take place optimally, leading to unwanted symptoms and consequences further down the GI tract.
Our nervous system and digestion go hand in hand, supporting each other. When we digest food well, we can nourish our entire body, including our nervous system. Likewise, our gut within the digestive system communicates back and forth with our brain. Research even suggests that our gut sends signals to our central nervous system, influencing mood changes. Moreso, a connection has been shown between irritation with digestion like constipation, diarrhea, and consistent bloating with mood disorders like anxiety and depression (John Hopkins Medicine, 2021). Therefore, healthy digestion is a crucial component in regulating our nervous system.
Tying it all together When we have irritating symptoms, we might feel like we need to buy quick health fixes overlooking that our symptoms are our body is communicating with us that something isn't right. Quick fixes are band-aid solutions to our symptoms, disregarding a deeper imbalance that eventually will come back in one form or another. For long-term success, we need to dig a little deeper and address our health at the foundational level. Before reaching for the latest cleanse or magic supplement to heal all our symptoms, focus on healing the process that extracts nutrients and gives us the ability to function and survive. Digestion is just one foundation that is core to a healthy body but supports a magnitude of important processes to keep us functioning well. When we heal digestion, we can heal a lot of other parts of our body.