Hippocrates is credited as saying “Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food.” Food certainly has a powerful impact on health; you are probably well aware of this fact. What you may not be aware is that the way you eat also has a profound impact on your health. You may be choosing to eat some of the most nutritious foods on earth but in reality, the nutrition you consume is only as good as your ability to digest and absorb it. There are several habits surrounding food and eating that I want all of my patients and readers to know in order for them to build optimal health. These 6 habits are part of what I refer to as food hygiene. Before sharing these habits with you, let’s briefly discuss how and why digestion is an important foundation to optimal health and wellness.
As a naturopathic doctor, I am constantly looking at the interrelationship of different systems in the body, acknowledging that the health of one undoubtedly affects the health of the whole. The gastrointestinal system (GI or gut) is one the major organ systems in your body and I am often awed by the far-reaching effects this system has. Conditions as diverse as arthritis, migraines, fatigue, anemia, allergies and depression are all impacted by the health of your gut. How can this possibly be? A large portion of your immune system and your nervous system are imbedded in the tissue layers surrounding your GI tract—it has even been referred to as the “second brain”! This is part of the explanation as to why the health of your gut, which depends greatly on your eating habits, can have an effect on so many other systems in your body. The gut is also an important barrier. Your GI tract is essentially a large tube extending through your body. A healthy GI tract is able to break down and selectively allow your body to take in needed nutrients and excrete unneeded substances and toxins. An unhealthy GI tract is not able to do this properly. Let’s look at two examples of conditions, anemia and arthritis, that can result from an unhealthy GI tract.
Anemia is a condition where your red blood cells are either lacking iron or vitamin B12 or there is a lack of red blood cells due to blood loss. Anemia can result in fatigue, shortness of breath and alterations in menses, among other things. In order for the body to absorb iron and vitamin B12 you must be producing enough stomach acid (which does not happen if you are on proton pump inhibitors or antacids) to break down the food you are eating, rendering these nutrients available. Additionally, the cells lining your gut must be healthy in order to carry the nutrients into your body. Another condition often affected by the health of your gut is arthritis. This may seem surprising, but I have observed this to be true. The cells lining your gut should sit next to each other very tightly with no gaps in between. This is what allows your body to select what gets to come into your body and what should simply exit the tube without being absorbed through the cells. There are many factors that can cause these cells to separate from each other and become “leaky.” This results in the body absorbing substances that are either not fully broken down enough for normal absorption and utilization or to absorb substances that do not belong inside your body at all. Once floating around inside your body something has to be done with these substances and some people’s bodies choose to deposit them in their joints. The immune system reacts to these particles as foreign invaders and the symptoms for the condition termed arthritis start. A “leaky” gut can contribute to other conditions as well.
You might now be wondering how the GI tract becomes unhealthy. Many of the habits most of us have or have had around eating can actually contribute to its ill functioning. The main culprits are:
• Eating on the go
• Eating constantly rather than at set meal times
• Insufficient production of enzyme and other substances necessary to break down food properly
• Eating foods your body may be sensitive to
• Emotional eating and eating under conditions of stress.
Infections from bacteria, viruses and parasites can also disrupt the health of your GI tract. Ironically so can many of the common prescriptions for treating them. And even more ironically, a GI tract that is unhealthy in the first place can predispose you to these infections. But there is hope! Next week I will be posting 6 habits of good food hygiene that will help lay the foundations of optimal health by improving your digestive, immune and nervous systems all at once. Until then, be well.