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By Dr. Ken Solomon
There comes a time when your cast-iron stomach no longer serves as well as it once did.
Certain foods begin to “bother” you. Burping, gas, burning and cramps. You get overfull more quickly after eating less than usual. Your belly begins to grumble each day and at many meals.
These grumbles are a culmination of a lifetime of Belly Grumbles, and the fact that by age 50 (or sooner) there have been unavoidable changes in your digestive tract.
A short physiology lesson is in order.
Digestion begins in the mouth. We taste and chew which signals the beginning of digestion and assimilation (the ability to absorb and use the nutrients from our food). Enzymes are released from our saliva that begin breaking down our food as our teeth mash it up. Signals are sent to the rest of the system to prepare. The mashed up food travels down the long esophagus, kept separate from our trachae. We do not want food in our lungs.
The stomach is next. An acid pit. Gastric acid is made of salts and hydrochloric acid to maintain a pH of 1-3. That is very acidic. And it needs to stay that way. This is the only way to break down many foods. The acid also destroys bacteria, larvae, parasites and eggs. It does a much better job than ginger and wasabi.
Partially digested food now travels to the small intestine Where 90 percent of digestion and absorption takes place. This is where nutrients and minerals are absorbed and transported via the bloodstream to the rest of the body.
It takes food about eight hours to go from the stomach through the 25 feet or so of the small intestine.
Now the large intestine takes over. The mostly digested food (chyme) passes through five feet of the large diameter intestinal tube. Water is absorbed. Gut bacteria further digests the chyme producing many vitamins that are transported throughout the body. Vitamin K (for clotting), for example, is produced only in the large intestine. Finally feces is produced which rhythmically and gently exits. Digestion is complete.
There are many types of tissues lining the digestive tract. Different functions, different secretions and varying muscle structure to help with motility (movement through and out of the tract). Gut flora to help with digestion and as a major support for our immune system. The microbiome (gut flora complex) is just now being detailed, mapped and understood in its widespread influences on the human body. It is far more complex than our genetic code.
When everything is working in harmony and at full potential the digestive system performs wonderfully. As we age there is less harmony. Important secretions diminish and are less varied. Muscle lining weakens and becomes less flexible. The gut flora becomes unbalanced from years of insulting food and drink which radically changes the constitution of the microbiome. Age makes digestion less efficient. Years of poor food choices and lifestyle can make it toxic; promoting dysfunction and disease.
The very acidic stomach produces less acid due to a decrease in the number and functionality of acid secreting cells. Food will become harder to break down and assimilate. Poorly digested food can lead to irritation of the linings of the entire digestive system. The loss of acid is especially notable with medications; prescriptions and over the counter (OTC). Medicines must be coated and taken with food. They all cause digestive imbalance and can lead to severe inflammation and internal bleeding.
The muscles enabling motility, like all aging muscles, lose some of their contractile properties, become less elastic and diminished somewhat in function. This increases transit time through the system and makes it harder to exit. The result is that we get full much sooner and have more frequent bouts of constipation. The risk of reflux and inflammation rises.
The decrease in motility may be one reason polyps form within the tract. Polyps can cause blockages or become malignant over time as their cell structure changes. Get your colonoscopy at age 50 and then repeat it as your doctor recommends.
Diverticulitis risk increases significantly, especially after the age of 60. The pockets in the intestines become less strong and enlarge. Decreased motility leaves undigested food particles which may lead to inflammation and infection. Both of which must be treated.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) risk also rises. Acidic contents continually erupt from the stomach into the esophagus. This is from partially digested foods, due to the reduction of stomach acid, remaining in the stomach. If allowed to progress there will be a great deal of pain. Barretts Esophagus may result, forming craters in the esophageal lining. These lesions may become carcinogenic.
Other health dysfunctions including fatty liver, diabetes, elevated triglycerides and leaky gut are also directly or indirectly influenced by deteriorating digestive efficiency.
Digestive woes are not the result of just aging. Actually, aging just magnifies the lifestyle mistakes we are making. That cast iron stomach has been eroding for decades and with age it gets to the point where it becomes dysfunctional and perhaps disease ridden. We must take care of our digestion before it starts to break down.
Drink lots of water. Only water facilitates gut absorption. Alcohol and sodas are inhibitors.
Make sure you’re always eating lots of fiber. Vegetables are the best form. They are rich in fiber, minerals and water; all digestive necessities. Avoid all chemically processed foods. They have little nutritional value, are difficult to use and are damaging to the body. Grains contain gluten. Think of gluten as glue. They bind the entire digestive system and greatly reduce its efficiency. Don’t be fooled by “gluten free”. This has become a powerful marketing term. Read the ingredients. Potato starches and chemicals are not good for you. Think “grain free”. Use almond or coconut flour.
Chew your food longer. Take extra bites. It really helps. Eat more slowly and have smaller meal – more frequently if you would like. If your diet is not rich in natural enzymes (think raw food) you will need to take supplements to make up for the diminished enzyme production of your body. Enzymes are amylases (for carbohydrates), lipases (for fats) and proteases (for proteins). A good supplemental enzyme will combine all three in proper proportion. Consult with your holistic health care provider to get the best recommendation for your individual lifestyle.
Prebiotics and probiotics are essential to allow normal microbiome growth. Unless your diet is rich in fermented foods, supplementation is necessary. Consult with your holistic healthcare practitioner as this supplementation is complex and needs to be individualized. Many practitioners will also suggest a moderated cleanse of at least fourteen days each year. Think of it as a digestive spring cleaning. This should be done with a healthcare provider to meet your individual needs. Avoid fads at all costs.
Regular exercise is important for your digestive health. Get a colon screening. Have annual blood tests taken. Eat nutrient dense foods. And did I say hydrate (of course I did)? If you treat your digestive system as you should, there will be much fewer belly grumbles.
I encourage conversation.
Dr. Kenneth S. Solomon serving the Hudson Valley since 1981
1058 Freedom Plains Road, Poughkeepsie, NY, 12603