It is often said ''we are what we eat'' and while it is very important to eat a healthy diet, it might be closer to the truth to say ''we are what we absorb''.
There is an old naturopathic belief that all disease starts in the gut and there is some truth to this, so a healthy digestive system, one that is capable of processing and absorbing the nutrients from the food we eat is essential to a healthy disease-free life.
The digestive system is a lot more than a tube where we put things in one end and the waste products come out the other. It is a place where a miracle of transformation takes place and the food we eat is broken down to many constituents in order to be used by the body as fuel.
The start of the process
The process start in the mouth with the saliva containing enzymes that begin to break down carbohydrates. The food reaches the stomach where more enzymes such as hydrochloric acid are secreted.
The food then turns into a soupy mix and goes into the next stage of digestion, the small intestine. This is the place most digestion and absorption of nutrients happens. The small intestine walls are covered with small finger-like projections called villi, and it is through the villi walls nutrients pass in to the blood stream.
To assist in the breakdown for food, bile is secreted by the gallbladder and enzymes by the pancreas. The fibrous remains of the food then move in to the large bowel where water is extracted and the rest, along with cellular debris, dead bacteria become faecal matter.
What can go wrong
There are a lot of things that can go wrong with this process, things that lead to a condition of under-function and if left untreated result in a number of uncomfortable situations before they lead to something more serious.
The first most common situation encountered is a lack of hydrochloric acid in the stomach. This leads to feeling very full when you haven't eaten a particularly large amount, feeling like the food you eat stays in the stomach for a long time feeling very burpy or bloated.
It is very important to fix this up quickly as the food you eat isn't digesting and is passing to the small intestine without being broken down and this will cause problems all the rest of the way down. One simple way to fix this is to begin the morning with a glass of warm water to which you have added the juice of half a lemon.
A problem occurs in the small intestine when the villi become stuck together with mucus as a result of a bad diet and then crack open to allow large molecules of protein to move in to the blood stream. The immune system then challenges these molecules and what we get is an allergic reaction.
If this situation goes on long enough, a sufferer gets to the stage of feeling they can't eat anything anymore, everything makes them feel sick in one way or another. This situation requires more drastic action, one we will go in to detail about below.
Many problems can occur in the large intestine but the most common problem is constipation. It is normal for food to take between 24 and 48 hours to pass through to excretion. The time this takes is called transit time.
If you want to check how efficiently your bowel is working eat some corn. Count how long it takes from the time of eating to the time the last kernels appear in your stool. If this time is longer than 48 hours then matters need to be given a hurry up.
The most common two reasons for constipation are not drinking enough water, we need six to eight glasses per day, and not eating enough fibre.
We can have between two and five kilograms of faecal matter held in our bowel at any one time, and when it just sits there some horrible things take place.
Putrefactive bacteria can move from the bowel into the bloodstream and when they are there they secrete enterotoxic matter. This then travels in the blood through the brain and causes headaches and feelings of toxicity and sickness. Pockets of inflammation can form in the bowel which lead to diseases such as diverticulitis.
The repair process
Before we start to think of what we should be eating, it is a good idea to begin any healthy lifestyle plan with a repair program for the insides.
As mentioned earlier, digestion begins in the mouth so the first step is to chew your food thoroughly. This isn't possible if you eat on the run. Most of us look forward to eating so we should all allow at least half an hour to sit quietly and eat. Trying to talk and eat at the same time results in swallowing your food unchewed, so I would advise finding a quiet spot for yourself.
The next step is to get the stomach to work as well as possible. As mentioned before, begin the morning with a glass of warm water with the juice of half a lemon. This will encourage the secretion of hydrochloric acid and by the time you are ready to eat your breakfast, your stomach will be ready and waiting for the food.
All mucus membranes are covered with mucus in the stomach this is to stop it digesting itself. Excess mucus can slow the process so it is a good idea to begin your program with fenugreek tea. This comes in the form of seeds and is a spice familiar to anyone who makes a lot of Indian curries. In the form of a tea it is a valuable dissolver of mucus throughout the body.
To make, bring one tablespoon of seeds in three cups of cold water to the boil and then leave the pot to sit and soak. Make and drink the contents of this each day for seven days, straining out the seeds, of course. You may experience loosened bowels, but if you do don't worry, this is just a sign it is doing its work.
This will also help the villi wall of the small intestine recover its function, and will stimulate the bowel to move.
A healthy diet
The elements of a healthy diet are fresh food, unprocessed food without additives, and a good balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats. We need to eat some cooked food and some raw food each day.
It is best if we can eat some protein at each meal. Breakfast examples can include eggs, baked beans, cottage cheese, ricotta or sardines. These can be eaten with a slice of good quality bread.
If you prefer to eat cereal, try to eat a good one without added sugar. Sprinkle it with LSA (a mix of ground linseeds, sunflower seeds and almonds) for added protein and add soy milk. If you don't like soy milk try rice milk, this goes very well with cereal with its slightly sweet flavour.
Lunch is a good time to eat some salad. Bring a selection from home and eat with a can of tuna or a small amount of fetta or cottage cheese. If you are really hungry add a couple of slices of good bread. If you absolutely don't have time to bring your lunch from home you can buy salad, but buy it plain, not covered with mayo. If you want to add a bit more flavour, squeeze over some lemon or lime juice or add a bit of balsamic vinegar.
For dinner at night eat a good range of freshly cooked vegetables, a small portion of a starch of some kind, such as potatoes, rice or pasta. Add some fish meat or chicken. Eat at least three pieces of fruit per day.
If you have a basic good diet you can afford to have some occasions for celebration and for eating cake, desserts and having some drinks. After all, staying happy and not feeling deprived is an important factor in good health.
Alison Johnson is a well known Sydney Naturopath who has been in practice for the last 22 years. She has qualifications in Herbal Medicine, Homeopathy, Nutrition, Iridology, Bodywork and Counselling. visit www.alisonjohnson.com.au for an appointment.
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