Digestion essentially has four phases; mechanical breakdown in the mouth by chewing, further breakdown by stomach acid, breakdown and absorption of nutrient in the small intestine and elimination of waste through the large intestine.
When we chew our food, it gets mixed with salivary amylase which is close to a neutral pH and this commences the breakdown of carbohydrates. The food then goes into the stomach and after about an hour carbohydrate breakdown virtually ceases as the environment in the stomach is very acid – around 2 – 3 on the pH scale.
What does my Stomach actually do?
Stomach acid breaks down protein in meat and vegetables. Stomach acid which is hydrochloric acid is produced by parietal cells in the stomach. Parietal cells in turn respond to increased levels of gastrin produced by G cells. When we smell food or anticipate eating G cells become active. The more protein substance we eat the more the stomach acid is supposed to be produced to help us break it down. Sometimes we can produce too much but this is not that common despite the ever-increasing incidence of gastric reflux. When we have problems like bloating and flatulence it is likely that the protein component of our food is not being broken down sufficiently and this job is left to intestinal bacteria. This could be due to insufficient stomach acid.
Gastric reflux is a condition associated with the failure of the lower esophageal sphincter just above the stomach remaining closed whilst the stomach is churning the food. It might feel like there is too much acid if you experience reflux or heartburn but that may not be the case. My experience is that gastric reflux can often be primarily a stress based dis-ease. The condition is exacerbated by a hiatal hernia which is also primarily a symptom of stress.
How I break down my food
Prior to the stomach emptying small portions of acid chyme or partially digested food are passed into the duodenum (the upper part of the small intestine) and tested to see if they are ready to release. This also sends signals to the pancreas and gallbladder that acid chyme is coming. The pancreas produces alkaline bio-carbonate ions which contain digestive enzymes. The quantity produced depends to a significant degree on the acidity of the chyme from the stomach. If the food chyme entering the small intestine is not very acid because not enough has been produced then the quantity of bio-carbonate ions and digestive enzymes will also be less. The gallbladder produces bile in response to the presence of fats in the chyme. Bile is required to emulsify fats so that they can be absorbed.
If you imagine that stomach acid is to protein like a chainsaw is to a log then you have a good picture of the extent to which it works in breaking down protein. Pancreatic enzymes when mixed with enzymes produced in the small intestine act more like a large chisel chipping away at the food and breaking it down into small pieces that can be absorbed. If the chainsaw is blunt, the chisel will be blunt as well and food will not breakdown. It will sit in the small intestine and feel like a rock in the gut. Absorption of nutrient will not be at its optimum. Food chyme will putrefy and rot causing irritation. Bacteria will try to break it down both in the small intestine and when it passes to the large intestine. Flatulence and burping often result. Food that is not properly broken down can cause sluggishness of the large bowel and lead to constipation.
Causes of Sluggish Digestion
Low stomach acid production can be due to a deficiency in the some of the components required to make it namely vitamins B1, B6 and zinc. Similarly, the pancreatic enzyme peptidase which is required for proper protein digestion has zinc as an active component. If you are constantly under stress, drink too much coffee and more than the occasional alcoholic beverage you could be deficient in B vitamins. Coffee and alcohol are diuretics and B vitamins being water soluble will be easily excreted. If you look at your finger nails and have a number of white spots or lines in them then you are likely zinc deficient. A high grain-based diet can contribute to zinc deficiency because grains contain phytates which bind to zinc in the gut and that mineral then gets eliminated with the waste.
Stress and Poor Digestion
Mental and emotional issues play their part. Stomach meridian is generally about getting our needs met instead of always meeting other people’s needs. It is also about feeling like we are being listened to and that what we say is valued by others. Feeling that we never get what we want out of life and that we always have to do what others want are common beliefs which affect stomach function. Similarly with pancreatic function a common theme is that “I have to put other people’s needs before my own”. Others include “It’s not ok to say what I want because that will mean upsetting someone”, or “I always feel used and abused”. In other words, trying hard to please others never really makes them happy and we never get what we want. Some people get really angry about that but keep that to themselves which only lessens pancreatic and stomach energy and function. Small Intestine is about expressing our spirit, what is in our heart, but we dare not do that because it will upset others. Large intestine is about our self worth and when we are always trying to keep others happy and do what they want it is likely our sense of self worth and self belief may not be very high. The way forward is to understand why we might have adopted these beliefs and find strategies to help us make different choices in our lives.