The Importance of Digestion (From Top to Bottom!)

file3011257997439 In my view, even if you smoke or are obese, the food you put into your mouth is the most important factor to determine your overall health. If you eat well your health improves; if you eat badly, your health deteriorates. Simple.

 

 

Well it should be simple but food and nutrition have become complicated over the last century. When we “process” food it can become difficult or impossible to digest. Add to that these other factors – we now eat foods that are not from our evolutionary diet, foods are often genetically modified, traditional food preparation has been replaced with super-fast methods and in many instances, cookery skills have been lost. Probably the most important is learning to cook from scratch using tried and trusted traditional methods and starting with the best ingredients, preferably organically produced.

We eat because we need nutrients which our bodies convert to compounds which are used in the hundreds of body processes that go on every second of our lives. Even if the food is the best, we still have to absorb and utilize these nutrients – and therein lies the rub!

Nutrition is not just filling our stomachs with any old food or a few vitamin tablets. Nutrition encompasses all of the following – the correct food being chewed, swallowed, digested (see below) absorbed and utilized. When any of these stages are omitted either within our control or without it, proper nutrition is forfeited. Let me explain.

When we anticipate or smell food, already our bodies begin preparation for digestion. We salivate, our stomachs rumble which indicates that the digestive juices are being produced. This enables various digestive enzymes to do their work before the next stage can commence.

Chewing food begins the digestion of carbohydrates and it is made more liquid. giant_panda_eatingThis is necessary if all nutrients are to be extracted. Swallowing begins the muscular wave (peristalsis) throughout the intestines to push food to the next stage of digestion. When food enters the stomach, protein is broken down by the hydrochloric acid contained in the digestive juices. The enzymes present continue the digestion of carbohydrates and begin the break-down of fats and proteins. When this is achieved, the small intestine continues the process using bile from the gall bladder and enzymes from the pancreas. Providing there is no disease in the small intestine, many nutrients and water are absorbed here. As the process continues into the large intestine, more fluid is absorbed and some of the B vitamins are created. The end of the scenario is a trip to the loo! This removes that which cannot be digested and other unneeded substances.

As you can see, there are many stages to digestion – which means that there are many ways for things to go awry. The food you eat makes the enzymes, saliva and gastric juices, so if your diet is poor, the situation moves from bad to worse.

Addressing the stages -
In the mouth:  If teeth are bad, the mouth is sore, dentures are poorly fitting, food may be poorly chewed or even avoided altogether.
In the stomach: Too little acid, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), ulceration of the stomach lining, frequent heartburn or a hiatus hernia and many more conditions can interfere with the initial break down of foods. This is especially true of vitamin B12.
In the small intestine: Food insufficiently digested in the stomach will be problematic, poor microbial mix or insufficient beneficial bacteria, Crohn’s and celiac disease, duodenal ulceration, poor bile and pancreatic enzyme production and other diseases  and insufficiencies will produce incomplete digestion here.
The large intestine: Diseases such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis (IBD), poor muscle tone (from years of the wrong diet), insufficient good bacteria, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) will all disrupt the final stages of digestion.

There are all sorts of ways that we can become mal-nourished, even in our land of plenty. Of course, if there was nothing you could do about it, I wouldn’t be writing this! There is plenty you can do to optimise your nutrition.

  1. Choose the best food you can afford and learn how to cook it. (This book is an excellent start!) I won’t go into the minutiae of as there is lots of advice in my other blogs.
  2. Ensure your teeth are in good condition.
  3. Eat slowly. Chew thoroughly and don’t drink much with food as this dilutes the needed acid in the stomach. People who suffer indigestion and GERD should not drink half an hour before or an hour after meals.
  4. Eat fermented foods sometimes – sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables, kefir, yogurt.
  5. Practice relaxation. Stress is very damaging on the digestive system at every stage.
  6. Ensure that meal times are just that. Make time to sit down and enjoy your food. I absolutely believe in chatting over a meal as this slows things down and is conducive to good digestion and not overeating.
  7. When you first feel the urge to go to the loo, please go!  Putting it off is damaging to the muscle tone of the bladder and the rectum.

There has to be at least one thing you can do to improve your digestion. One step at a time..

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B12 – The Finicky Vitamin

Along with the other B vitamins, B12 is responsible for releasing energy from food, healthy nerves, the formation of blood and other cells, mental health and much more. Deficiency at its worst causes pernicious anaemia, (possibly) contributing to Alzheimer’s disease, psychoses and heart disease. The symptoms that often present initially are mood swings, insomnia, lacking energy and tingling in the hands and feet.

1426234_63077721It is very easy to become vitamin B12 deficient today. Life is so very different to how it was one hundred or even fifty years ago when home cooking was all that was available and nothing as wasted. We are a “fast” society now and everything has to be pronto – many don’t cook anymore – preferring microwave meals. We eat on the hoof just to fill our stomachs quickly with scant regard for the food’s nutritional value or whether we will digest it properly. It is incredible to me that people complain about the cost of food whilst buying ready meals and takeaways and it will contribute to becoming B12 deficient in our modern times.

Even if you care about your health, it is possible to become deficient in this vitamin. Those who are vegetarian through choice could be at risk. Likewise those who are vegetarian or vegan for religious or other reasons often miss out on this essential nutrient.

Some illnesses prevent B12 being utilised. The reason I call this the “finicky” vitamin is due to its metabolism. Simply, a protein called “intrinsic factor” found in the stomach juices binds itself to B12 to allow absorption. Most foods are digested and absorbed during the long journey through the small intestine. Not B12 though! There is a small area between the small and large intestines reserved for just this purpose. Because of this rather complicated process, illnesses affecting the gut can disrupt it at all stages.

  • Fast foods; even if any B12 is present, they are consumed quickly with minimal mastication and washed down with a drink of some sort. If foods are not chewed thoroughly, they cannot be digested effectively in the stomach. When food is accompanied by large quantities of fluid, the stomach acid is diluted and therefore, the intrinsic factor will be also. This can lead to the use of…
  • Antacids, reflux and ulcer medicines; these lower the acidity in the stomach making the digestion of B12-containing proteins difficult to digest thereby preventing its release from the food.
  • Ageing; stomach acid naturally reduces as we age leading to a similar situation as above.
  • Gut disorders; people who suffer the diseases that cause ulceration of the gut lining and diarrhoea are at risk. This includes sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), celiac disease, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease (IBD).
  • Other drugs; diabetes medications, statins, birth control pills and antibiotics. There is a more comprehensive list and lots more information here.

So what can we do to maximise our chances of maintaining optimum levels of B12? It 736236_94991508would be far too easy for me to say that those people suffering from illnesses should seek to become well again (and some of the diseases I have named here are reversible) but nonetheless, action has to be taken one way or another! The best way to supplement B12 is by injection thus bypassing the complicated metabolic process. Or by sub-lingual drops. This is necessary for vegans too, as useful B12 is only present and available in animal foods. For vegetarians – kefir, organic cheeses and eggs are essential. The best sources for the rest of us are organic offal meats, shellfish as well as the above. To improve the uptake of B12 chew food thoroughly, don’t drink too much with meals so as not to dilute stomach acid and eat slowly. To stimulate stomach acid, eat fresh sauerkraut as a part of your meals, or a spoonful just a few minutes before a meal. Apple cider vinegar can be used too.

Above all, if you don’t or can’t cook please do something about it. The health of families starts in kitchens!

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Real Wellness and How I Came to My Conclusions

I have had a long career as a nurse and it gave me a bit of insight into what is happening to us. It occurred to me years ago, that people were becoming sicker and not healthier despite the government guidelines for health and less people smoking. There were a few questions about health that needed answering. Some of them about what is happening today, but some regarding our evolution.

Dinosaurs and Cavemen

  1. It is likely that our genes have not changed since Paleolithic (Paleo) times, so why do we believe that the diet now advocated as “healthy”, would be better for us than the one we evolved with?
  2. How did we survive with no dieticians and nutritionists/fitness instructors/diet books and the internet?
  3. Did cavemen eat cornflakes or run marathons?
  4. Why are we getting sicker but “living longer”?
  5. Why did my mum always cut out bread and potatoes to lose weight then regain that weight when she resumed eating them?

These are my answers to the above questions:

  1. All animals need protein, fat, vitamins and minerals and (maybe) carbohydrates. A cow’s gut is unique in that it can break down grass and weeds to the very basic building blocks. From this it can then rebuild these blocks to form proteins, fats etc. This process is also why it has to eat all day! Its stomach has four chambers and its intestines are about half the length of a football pitch! We do not have the guts for this vegetarian diet. Our gut is mainly designed for meat eating but nature has ensured the maximum chance for our survival so we are also able to digest some other foods.
  2. Our taste buds and other responses to food eaten, tell us what our digestion can cope with. Are we going to eat grass? No! Are we (on a regular basis) going to eat seeds? No! Are we going to lob a stone at a duck and roast it? Oh yes! (We have been cooking for at least 400,000 years) If you are now wondering why it is that you fancy a cake with your coffee, the reason is simple. In a cake we have combined protein, fat and carbohydrates and our taste buds are totally confused. The fat and protein are detected so they give the green light.
  3. No, our ancestors did not eat corn and run around like mad things – unless it was really essential. Collecting seeds was a labour of necessity not desire 40,000 years ago. This would have been an unnecessary energy expenditure most of the time. Using stealth, skill, team work and short bursts of energy would usually ensure that the family were fed good quality food in the form of wild animals. There would have been little edible vegetation for much of the year.
  4. There are several reasons why the statistics are showing that we are living longer both from Palaeolithic times and from a couple of hundred years ago. Cavemen died from severe injuries and overwhelming infections because there were no doctors. There is little evidence of modern disease until 5-10,000 years ago. Since Victorian times, much has changed, not just our diets. We have better sanitation, cleaner air, better medical care for injuries or infections and importantly for the statistics, less neonatal deaths.
  5. In the mid 1900s, the way to lose weight was to drop bread, cakes, potatoes and sweets. This worked because there was no need for the fat storing hormone insulin to metabolise these carbohydrates. During the 80s, the government intervened with a recommended diet and we all fell for it. The NHS took it as gospel and the word recommended was forgotten. So from this time we have eaten lots of highly processed carbohydrates, less fat and protein – and bingo! We are now a nation of obese diabetics with irritable bowel syndrome and autoimmune diseases! Yes I’m being facetious but the point has to be made that we are now sicker than ever, with diseases that were largely unheard of 100 years ago.

So this is where I started. It just made so much sense whereas before I was struggling to put the science behind the advice I was giving as a nurse. Now there is not only the backing of good science but for me, the history of us to give credence to the advice I now give. Natural and unprocessed food that has been produced the way it should be and a life, living as close to nature as is possible.

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Supplements or the Natural Way?

One of the reasons that I rarely advise nutritional supplements is because in taking them, it is easy to over or under-do these chemicals. Whether the body has too much or too little of these substances, it will become stressed with ridding the excess or trying to meet the body’s needs, with insufficient.

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Nutrients cannot be seen in isolation. They work together, like an orchestra. Each depends on others to perform their role to ensure the whole is working effectively.

A side issue is that many supplements are poor quality and the nutrients are in the wrong form for our digestive systems. This is so often the case with vitamins D and B12 but there are others too. People who suffer IBS and other gut problems have even more difficulty with absorption.

To maximise nutrient uptake, food should be eaten in its natural state with minimal processing. We should also eat that which we are genetically programmed for. (Lots of information about this in other blogs.) There is little point in humans eating grass, even though it is probably full of nutrients – after all, cows love it!. Our taste buds tell us that we do not have the correct digestive equipment for grass and therefore cannot absorb its goodness. However, cattle make all these nuteients available to us if we eat meat!

Whilst all nutrients need others, there are some that are more important. Vitamin D3 needs several in order to be utilized properly. Firstly it is formed in the skin with the help of the sun. Then it reaches the bloodstream, ends up in the liver and is transformed into other substances for use. At each stage, a variety of chemicals are required to enable the function. Magnesium, vitamins A and K2, zinc and boron are the main players here.

Magnesium
This is one mineral that is becoming a problem. The soil becomes exhausted with modern farming methods. The best way to obtain a good amount is to buy organic produce and/or grow your own vegetables. Good sources are leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds. This study shows the importance of magnesium for bone health in children.

Vitamin A and K
Again there are various forms of these vitamins and the most reliable way of obtaining them is from animal foods. Liver, eggs, golden butter and cheese are good for bio-available vitamins A and K2. Leafy greens are good for K1 and beta-carotene which is a precursor to vitamin A. For the best absorption of these, eat animal fat on your greens – a good knob of butter will do it!

Zinc
Meat, shellfish and nuts are good sources.

Boron
Leafy vegetables, nuts and avocados are reliable sources of this trace element.

Fritatta So, meals can be easily put together to maximise your intake of these important nutrients. Here are some examples:
Liver and onions cooked in butter and served with kale or broccoli
Cheese omelette cooked in butter with green veg as above
Avocado and prawns, good bread with lots of butter and a handful of nuts afterwards

Whilst there will be some vitamin D in the above meals, a more reliable source is from safe sun exposure.

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Winter Bugs

The cold weather is here! It can be miserable at this time of the year – no sun, it’s cold, windy and wet, Christmas is looming. We do not want to be ill! Here are a few precautions and some things you can do to head the bugs off at the pass!

Prevention: this is the most important aspect of your health and there is no substitute. To maximise the efficiency of your immune system, you should increase intake of fish and shell fish, meat and its fat, eggs, offal and green leafy vegetables. Make bone broth as a basis for soup and consider taking a supplement of krill or cod liver oil (preferably fermented). Remember that a diet high in carbohydrate foods, adds sugar to your body as all carbs are broken down to glucose – the simplest form of sugar. Having a constantly raised glucose level, slows down the action of our white cells, which combat infection.

Hand washing is imperative as a control of infections. In our daily lives we shake hands with people, open doors, use toilets, press lift buttons, use telephones, push shopping trolleys and more. These are all potential sources of infection. There is no need to be paranoid but we should all be careful. Wash and dry your hands thoroughly and frequently during the day, but always before eating or preparing food, after using the loo and when returning home from work, shopping etc. Perhaps wear gloves when out and about.

Have a couple of baths a week using essential oils to boost your immune system. Add a total of four drops from any of these; marjoram, thyme, tea tree, eucalyptus, lavender, and cinnamon. A mixture is best. Epsom salts in the bath will boost your magnesium levels – needed for immune health, and this can also induce sound sleep – another boost.

A few teaspoons of coconut oil and fresh sauerkraut each day will help balance your gut microbes – the foundation of the immune system.

So what do you do if you get a bug? Go to bed. Sleep as much as your body requires. Drink plenty of water/herb teas/broth and only eat if you are hungry. A teaspoon of raw honey -manuka, lavender, rosemary (but all raw honey can help) and a pinch of (Himalayan crystal or Celtic grey) salt dissolved in a litre of warm water is helpful if you have a stomach bug. Sip over 6-8 hours. If you are able, take baths as before. Try to stay away from others especially children, the elderly and those who have compromised immunity – eg. those who have been ill recently or are on medication.
If you feel you need something to help with symptoms, paracetamol may help but try to keep it to night time so that you get a good sleep.

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The body is quite able to repair itself and fight infection without help but if you are worried or the illness does not seem to be improving, get advice from your doctor by phone. You will not be welcome at the surgery!

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Broth

This is not the humble food that it may sound, but a wonderfully nutritious and delicious food, much prized by any self-respecting cook. Wonderful sauces, soups and gravies start with a tasty broth – not from a cube!

P1012280When I was a child, I remember that on Sundays we had a roast dinner, Mondays we had a cold meal using the leftover meat and Tuesdays we had soup. We were lucky enough to have an Aga stove and the bones from the joint or the chicken would simmer all day. The smell was always divine.

 

We have lost this tradition to the detriment of our health. We are now a throw-away society and bones from a Sunday roast – even if one is served – will be left for the dust-man. This is a sad state of affairs. Our health is ailing due to the fast-food that we now consume. If cooking is started from scratch, we tend to use bone-free and skinless fish/meat. Not only is this more expensive but it is devoid of vital nutrients.

Traditional and primitive cultures make use of everything – bones, joints, skin and fat included. Broths made from these, have nutrients that would otherwise be lost. They also contain gelatine – a simple and nourishing protein which is easy to absorb making broth very suitable for convalescence or if you have a stomach upset. Those expensive supplements – glucosamine and chondroitin, used by people with joint problems, are also present.

Cook whole chickens instead of pieces. When the meat is used, place the carcass in a plastic bag and give it a bash with a rolling pin. Then freeze it. Do the same with other carcasses from duck, pheasant, turkey etc. then when you have a nice lot, make a big batch of broth, then reduce and freeze it for when you want to make soup. Do the same with beef ribs, lamb shoulder bones and so on. Or ask your fish monger to save some non-oily fish skeletons and heads and make fish stock.

Try this recipe for broth/stock and make soup! Warming and welcoming – what could be better?

Basic Stock for Soups, Gravy and Sauces

  • Bones from the butcher (with marrow and bits of meat if possible), sawn into pieces or poultry bones from roast chicken/turkey/duck (see below)
  • Water
  • Himalayan or Celtic salt to taste
  • Peppercorns
  • Clean vegetable trimmings
  • Bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar or lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons duck/goose fat or other animal fat

If the bones are raw, roast for an hour in a fairly hot oven – not essential, but it will add colour and flavour to the finished stock. Put the bones in a stockpot with all the other ingredients except the salt. Bring to the boil over a medium heat. When it starts to boil, turn the heat down and remove any scum as it rises to the surface. Put the lid on and simmer very gently for at least four hours but as long as is possible or simmer up to 18 hours in a slow-cooker. The longer the simmer time, the more nutrient dense the broth. Strain the stock. The salt can now be added. (If you are making a pureed soup, dig the marrow from the bones and add it to the broth.)
At this point you can either continue to make soup or you can store it for another time. If you wish to do this, return it to the cleaned pot and boil rapidly until reduced by half. Allow to cool then refrigerate/freeze.
When using the stock at a later date, return it to its original quantity with water/milk/other liquid before making the soup/gravy/sauce.

There is just nothing better than a bowl of home-made soup. It really is a meal in itself when prepared from scratch and served with a hunk of good bread!

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Coconuts

The coconut palm and its relatives have been in existence for millions of years, in fact all of the time that we have been evolving.

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Primitive hominids undoubtedly used coconuts for food and the shells would have been employed as drinking vessels or receptacles for collecting shellfish/berries/nuts etc. Even the palm leaves would have been used in building shelters, wrapping foods for cooking and so on.

Today, the coconut itself yields even more “products”. The flesh as it is or grated and pressed to make coconut milk and cream. Oriental and Indian cookery often feature these to flavour and thicken sauces. The milk can be cultured into “yogurt”.

The oil that the coconut produces is highly saturated. It won’t spoil, it is not harmful to health and it is very stable – even at high temperatures. Coconut oil is also quite unique in its nutritional components. Lauric acid can increase the “good” cholesterol in the blood stream. This in addition to capric and caprylic acid provides a very effective prevention or treatment for harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites and yeasts (ie. Candida) whether they are on the skin or in the gut. A pot of organic coconut oil can be extraordinarily useful! Use it in stir-fries or curries or in smoothies and other recipes.
Make sure you keep some in the bathroom too – it makes a great face and body moisturiser, hair conditioner and a brilliant toothpaste when mixed with baking soda. “Oil pulling” is a traditional way to reduce harmful bacteria in the mouth. Take a teaspoon of the oil and when it is in your mouth it will melt. Then just swoosh it around your mouth and “pull” it through your teeth. Spit it out after a few minutes.

The water in the centre of a coconut is wonderfully refreshing any time but is also a great sports drink. It has minimal sugars but has lots of quickly absorbed electrolytes, which are lost through sweat during exercise.  It would be a good supplement for those with stomach upsets, when other food cannot be taken.

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Try using coconut flour in baking – it is very high in fibre and nutrients. It is important to remember that coconut flour can’t just be substituted for wheat flour in a recipe. Due to its high fibre content, it will absorb lots of moisture. For this reason, it is better to find recipes specifically for coconut flour – there are lots on the net. Coconut flour has no gluten, making it ideal for those who are gluten-sensitive. Bread can be made but not a yeasted bread – eggs and baking soda will give the rise.

Coconut palm sugar is derived from the sap of the coconut tree. It is a superior product to white sugar as it does keep a few of its nutrients during the processing – some of the B vitamins and the minerals zinc, iron, calcium and potassium.

Coconut products have nourished us for all of our time. Most are inexpensive – even if they are organic. Time to put this wonderful food back into our diet!

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