I have been asked by several people to go into a more in depth look at the parts of the digestive tract. So I have decided to do a series on an adventurous journey from your Tongue-to-Bum to help you understand the basics of digestion.
Before I embark on this exciting journey, I must start with a bit of an apology because I didn’t tell you the whole truth in earlier blogs. We used the old common-sense axiom “you are what you eat.” Well, that is not really true. You are not really what you eat, but you are what you absorb. Of course, we can even go a bit further than that…
I will start at the beginning with one of the basic concepts that our students learn in their first few weeks of the 3 – 4 year process of becoming a Clinical Herbalist at Wild Rose College.
It is the principle of IN-DO-OUT. You are what you eat, and absorb (IN), along with what you metabolize (DO) and what you do not eliminate (OUT). The digestive tract deals with the IN, and part of the OUT aspects that are so important to most healing systems.
This principle, of course, deals with nutrition (the food and drink we ingest) – but it goes way beyond this. It also encompasses mental and emotional states, which can dramatically affect digestion. This concept can be seen in our language, as the ancients understood this system well. It is from this ancient understanding that expressions like: “he has a lot of gall”, “venting your spleen” and “having a gut feeling” originated. Yet, modern medical perspective states that the brain is the repository of the mind and emotions, thus contradicting the experience of feeling emotions viscerally and not in the head. However, because recent research indicates that there is an important link between digestion and the brain, medical science now recognizes the existence of an enteric nervous system – or the “brain of the gut”.
This means that our level or state of stress can play an important role in: how we digest food, what we get out of food, and whether the food will be beneficial or harmful to us.
With all of that said, we can now set forth on the epic adventure of exploring your digestive tract! You might think that digestion starts in the mouth, and who could blame you; most biology and medical texts state that to be the case. In reality, digestion begins well before that. It starts in the mind. Just think of preparing for a holiday trip: it starts off as a concept, then you go on to prepare, and then you pack and get ready for the trip. Well, eating is no different: the sights, smells, and sounds elicit signals in your brain and you initiate actions to prepare your digestive tract for a meal. These actions include those that go back even to buying the ingredients at the store, or if you are really prepared, to planting the ingredients in your garden. As most of us know, the more prepared you are for a journey, the better equipped you are to enjoy the various adventures you encounter.
So, right now, picture yourself in a kitchen preparing your favorite dish. Now allow us to clone you and shrink you down so small that you are invisible to the human eye. All around you are big flying objects. Grab onto one. It will pull you very quickly inside of a big black cave. You have just hitched a ride on an aromatic molecule and are going inside of your own nose, on your way, via your olfactory center, to your brain. What you have just been a part of is one of the first direct digestion stimulating actions. Now jump back to yourself preparing your favorite dish.
In this food preparation stage of digestion, the chopping, and cooking of the meal create aromas that further help us to ready our digestive tract for what is to come. Even if you haven’t been involved in the preparation of the food, just walking into the kitchen and breathing in the fantastic bouquets of scents, will most likely create a salivation reaction for you. Marketers have utilized this experience to their benefit, filling malls with scents of cinnamon buns, French fries, and coffee –and let’s not forget the tantalizing smell of popcorn in a theater. Has it ever made you impulse-buy?
These sensory signals come to your brain and travel down your nervous system via the vagus nerve and stimulate your appetite. This first stage is called the cephalic phase and it is what tells the digestive tract: “get ready because something wonderful is about to be eaten!” This system is quite efficient (not just for the marketers, but for you), as the amount of digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid necessary for breaking down the food can increase by as much as 40% before you take your first mouthful! Insulin secretion can increase by just smelling and even looking at those cinnamon buns.
This has become a big problem in modern society, or should we say the fast food society. Most people are not involved in the preparation of their own food and by the time they eat it, they wolf it down so fast that they haven’t let the cephalic phase of digestion engage, even partially, in its operation. This means they will not have as much of the digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid available to utilize, and thus the IN (digestion and absorption) becomes compromised. Not a good start!
To be continued . . . get ready for the digestive adventure.