You are what you eat, right? Surprisingly the answer to that question is yes and no. It would be more accurate – but admittedly less catchy – to say “you are what you assimilate.” Getting healthy food into your body is without a doubt a critical step to achieving overall health; however, your ability to properly breakdown and absorb vital nutrients dictates just how beneficial your diet is.
Chew on This
Assimilation – or how well you absorb nutrients – begins in the mouth. The second you smell a delicious meal, you begin to salivate. From the first bite to the last, your mouth is flooded with enzymes that begin the process of breaking down your food. How well you chew your food is more important than you may realize. Chewing pre-digests your food by reducing it into smaller pieces and partially liquefying it, making it easier to digest. Chewing properly allows your stomach to work more efficiently and break down your food faster.
Once you swallow your food, it is doused with acids and enzymes then squeezed and tumbled as the ring-like muscles of the stomach begin their dance. Absorption starts when your food, now a semi-fluid paste called chyme, enters the small intestine. During its journey through the over 20 feet of small intestine, the nutrients from your food are absorbed into your body.
The Journey Continues
Once food leaves the stomach, it will stay in your small intestine for about 2 hours and journeys through three distinct sections.
- Duodenum: The duodenum is where the final breakdown of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) happens. This is where absorption of minerals takes place so the quality of your chyme matters. How well minerals are absorbed depends on how well your teeth, digestive enzymes and stomach acids have broken down your food.
- Jejunum: This is where vitamins and simple sugars (from carbohydrates) and amino acids (from proteins) are absorbed. Water soluble vitamins, like Vitamin C and the B-complex vitamins, go directly into the bloodstream from here. Fat soluble vitamins, like Vitamins A, D, and E are are absorbed down the line so they are packaged into fats for transport.
- Ileum: Any good stuff leftover will get picked up here. Fats and fat soluble vitamins are transported to the lymphatic system so they can be slowly released into the bloodstream over time.
So you chew, you swallow, you digest, you absorb nutrients – why are we even talking about this? Because how well you do the above can be negatively or positively affected by your habits, lifestyle and even your age.
Six Factors That Negatively Affect Absorption
- Prescription drugs: Some medications can bind with nutrients and decrease their absorption. We ARE NOT saying “stop taking your meds.” Just know that some medications disrupt absorption such as broad-spectrum antibiotics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and stomach acid blockers like Zantac and Prilosec. For more information check out what Dr. Steven Gundry of Gundry MD has to say about it.
- Age: As you age, your body becomes less adept at breaking down and absorbing nutrients from the foods you eat and the supplements you take. Making every bite count nutritionally becomes even more important as we mature. Eat the rainbow, people!
- Microbial Imbalance: Over growth of the wrong kind of bacteria in the small intestine can disrupt your absorption as well as cause other issues including excessive intestinal gas, bloating, diarrhea, and pain. Check out more about Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) .
- Alcohol: Alcohol may hamper normal digestion by damaging cells in the stomach and intestine. It can also disrupt the release of important digestive enzymes.
- Caffeine: Caffeine can cause your body to release vital vitamins and minerals. And all you caffeine junkies, keep in mind that the tannins, a plant compound in coffee and tea, can also inhibit the absorption of calcium, iron, magnesium and B-vitamins.
- Stress: Another reason to stress about stressing! Stress can actually drain your nutrient stores and affect how well you digest your food.
Tips for Increasing Your Absorption
- Chew It – Take smaller bites and chew until your food is liquified. It takes time and you will likely need to practice but it is important. Want to learn more about why chewing well is essential (including how it helps with weight loss?). Check out Dr. Mercola’s thoughts on the subject.
- Take It Easy – Are you eating on the run, standing up, or in a stressful environment? Want more energy, less bloating? Do yourself a favor and stop, sit, breathe and chill!!! Remember those soft belly breaths we discussed a few months ago.
- Make It Happen – Everyone needs a little help sometimes. Up your digestive efficiency by supplementing with digestive enzymes and amino acid, l-glutamine.
- Let It Go – What’s your poo telling you? Is it watery or loose? This could indicate that your absorption phase is compromised.