When most people think of being “healthy,” likely the first things that come to mind are diet and exercise. And while those are both important, there is another factor that is equally important, and that is digestion. Merriam-Webster.com (2022) defines digestion as “the process of making food absorbable by mechanically and enzymatically breaking it down into simpler chemical compounds in the digestive tract.” Making food absorbable is one of the main roles of digestion, so let’s first dive into why this might be so important.
Every cell, every function of the human body relies on the nutrients, vitamins and minerals it absorbs from the food we eat. If our digestive system is dysfunctional and is unable to make food absorbable, or useful to the body, a waterfall of dysfunction will inevitably begin to affect other parts of the body. While the human body is a truly miraculous organism, and is designed to do an amazing job of maintaining proper function on its own, it does need a bit of support from the person who inhabits it. The reality is, there are a lot of external factors working against it; from the processed and preservative-filled food we eat, to the toxins in our environment and our hectic and harried lifestyles, you can see why many of us will at some point experience some sort of dysfunction in our bodies.
This dysfunction can present itself in many ways, but the main systems we see consequences of poor digestion in would be those of the Endocrine, Immune, Cardiovascular, Detoxification and the Nervous System. When trouble arises in any of these critical systems, the approach is often to treat the symptoms and leave it at that. Dig a little deeper though, and it’s possible to see the problem within the problem, and that is, poor digestion.
The Endocrine System
The Endocrine System is made up of glands and cells that secrete hormones into the body. And what do hormones do? Well for starters, they:
Tortora, J., Derrickson, B. (2019)
Clearly, hormones are important to our bodies, but take it a step further and we see that digestion is just as important to our hormones. If we are not eating a nutrient dense, whole food diet, and then proceeding to fully and properly digest that food, our cells will not be receiving the fatty acids, minerals and nutrients required for endocrine gland function and hormone production. Aside from the extraction of nutrients, if food is not being digested properly, there may be large food particles entering the bloodstream which causes inflammation and stress on our body, leading to added stress on things like our adrenal glands. When glands such as the adrenals are stressed, our body goes into fight or flight mode. If this happens too frequently, it can cause a host of other problems in the body, even negatively impacting digestion, and thus the cycle continues. Learning to ‘heal and seal’ our digestive tract will greatly support the endocrine system in its many roles in the body.
The Immune System
Another system absolutely vital to our wellbeing is the Immune System. The immune system is what works hard every day fighting off bugs, germs, pathogens, toxins, parasites and more so that we stay healthy. If your immune system is compromised, you not only experience common “cough and cold” type symptoms, but you may also experience things like seasonal allergies, food sensitivities, rashes, aches and pains, autoimmune diseases, and more. While we are all taught to eat well and wash our hands to stay healthy, it’s nearly impossible to avoid every germ or virus that comes our way.
One of the most important players when it comes to having a strong immune system, is, you guessed it, the digestive system. The digestive system is one of the first lines of defense for detecting and destroying and/or removing toxins and unfriendly invaders from our body. From our stomach acting like a disinfecting antechamber (Nutritional Therapy Association [NTA], 2020) all the way down to the removal of waste through the large intestine and colon, the digestive system is on constant high alert. However, when dysfunction arises, the immune system will be one of the first things to be compromised.
For instance, if there is not enough Hydrochloric Acid in the stomach, rather than being destroyed, pathogens, parasites, bacteria and fungi will continue on their journey to find a home and wreak havoc in the body elsewhere. If food is not being digested fully, or the gut is “leaky,” those undigested food particles will escape into the bloodstream and you may experience food sensitivities, rashes or other sorts of inflammation within the body. Our cells, including immune cells, need nutrients, vitamins and minerals extracted from our food in order to function properly, and if the digestive system is unable to provide those, the immune cells simply cannot do the job they were designed to do.
The Cardiovascular System
A healthy, beating heart is a vital part of being a healthy human being, and a healthy heart actually begins with good digestion. Our hearts rely on nutrients, vitamins and minerals to function properly. We need calcium and magnesium for the contracting and relaxing of muscles that make our heart beat; we need healthy fats for fuel and cellular structure and function of the heart; we need protein to make protective amino acids like carnitine and taurine (Qaradakhi,T., Gadanec, L., McSweeney, K., Abraham, J., Apostolopoulos, V., & Zulli, A., 2020 ); and we need a properly functioning digestive system to allow those things to be extracted and absorbed before they can even get to organs like the heart, where they are needed the most.
Aside from what the heart needs, compromised digestion may also allow in what the heart does not need. If things like pathogens and fungi, or undigested food particles make it into a leaky gut for instance, rather than be destroyed or removed, they will enter the bloodstream and make their way to places like the heart where they cause damage and inflammation. The body handles this damage by sending cholesterol to “patch things up,” but when there is too much damage resulting in too many patches, heart disease may begin to present. You truly cannot have a strong, healthy heart without proper digestion.
The Detoxification System
“Detoxification is the way the body heals and repairs itself. It has an internal cleansing process that takes place continuously and naturally.” (NTA, 2020). There are several systems involved in the body’s detoxification process, including the Lymph, Respiratory, Urinary, Cardiovascular, Skin, and of course, the Digestive System. So what role does the digestive system play in detoxification? Let’s take a look:
As you can see, without the digestive tract, most toxins would just be left trapped and circulating in the body. When this happens, especially if someone has a compromised or leaky gut, they may experience a period of “retox” where these toxins are actually reabsorbed into the body. Toxins circulating like this will undoubtedly put an immense amount of stress on every part and system in the body, resulting in inflammation and disease. A healed digestive track will optimize your body’s ability to detox.
The Nervous System
According to the National Cancer Institute (2022), the Nervous System is an “organized network of nerve tissue in the body.” It originates in the brain and acts as a control center for the body. It controls movement, thoughts and reactions, as well as processes like digestion, breathing and your heart beat.(Cleveland Clinic, 2020). As an NTP, we recognize that digestion is an all-encompassing, “north to south” process that actually begins in our brains. (NTA, 2020). As our brain is stimulated by food or even the thought of food, it begins to send out signals that cause a chain reaction of events in the rest of the body. From saliva production in the mouth, all the way down to that urge you feel to go to the bathroom, the digestive system was created to run as one well-oiled machine.
Digestion functions best when the body is in an at-rest, or “parasympathetic” state. This is because, as the Counseling and Psychological Services at BYU put it, “the stress response inhibits the digestive system while the relaxation response activates it. That is why the relaxation response is often called ‘rest and digest.’” (2022). To the contrary, when the body is in a stressful or “fight or flight” state, it often turns off digestion so valuable resources and energy can be directed to other parts of the body in the effort of self preservation. When digestion is halted, that means the body is not getting the nutrients it needs to thrive and waste and toxins are not being removed, which is taxing on the body in other ways.
More and more research is coming out about the “gut-brain connection” and how closely related they really are to each other. When the brain (which controls the nervous system) is stressed, it affects the digestive system; when the digestive system is stressed, it affects the brain (and nervous system), even presenting as certain psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety. (Cleveland Clinic, 2020). While there is a purpose to this synergistic gut-brain relationship, when one or the other experiences any sort of stress or dysfunction, the body will undoubtedly get stuck in a negative feedback loop, and the cycle will continue. Learning to support digestion and remove stressors from your life are the best places to start in order to heal this relationship.
It’s no secret that humans need nourishment to survive, but we also need a way to properly process and utilize that nourishment within our bodies, and that begins with good digestion. Good digestion is one of the most important foundations for living a healthy and vibrant life. The human body is a wonderous, miraculous machine, and will for the most part, take care of itself. We just need to be kind, be mindful, and give it the support it needs. Start with digestion, your body will thank you.
- Merriam-Webster.com. (2022). Digestion Definition and Meaning. Retrieved from
- Tortora, J., Derrickson, B. (2019). Introduction to the Human Body. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
- Nutritional Therapy Association. (2020). Digestive Function Student Lecture [PDF document]. Retrieved from: https://nutritionaltherapy.instructure.com/courses/210/pages/dig-%7C-core-videos?module_item_id=13252
- Qaradakhi,T., Gadanec, L., McSweeney, K., Abraham, J., Apostolopoulos, V., & Zulli, A. (2020)
- The Anti-Inflammatory Effect of Taurine on Cardiovascular Disease. Nutrients v.12(9) Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov//pmc/articles/PMC7551180/
- Nutritional Therapy Association. (2020). Detoxification Introduction Student Lecture [PDF document]. Retrieved from: https://nutritionaltherapy.instructure.com/courses/210/pages/det-%7C-core-videos?module_item_id=13332)
- Nutritional Therapy Association. (2020). Detoxification Function Student Lecture [PDF document]. Retrieved from: https://nutritionaltherapy.instructure.com/courses/210/pages/det-%7C-core-videos?module_item_id=13332
- National Institute of Cancer. (2022). Definition of the Nervous System. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/nervous-system
- Cleveland Clinic. (2020). Nervous System. Retrieved from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/21202-nervous-system
- BYU Counseling and Psychological Services. (2022). Stress and the Digestive System: The Science. Retrieved from: https://caps.byu.edu/stress-and-the-digestive-system
Cleveland Clinic. (2020). Gut-Brain Connection. Retrieved from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/16358-gut-brain-connection