We are obsessed with diets: vegan, paleo, fat-fueled, high-protein, low-carb, etc. And there’s an ongoing debate as to which one is best.
The truth is that there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution here. But there is, however, one universal principle: no matter what we choose to eat, it needs to end up in our cells in order to provide the benefits.
How do the nutrients in an apple get delivered to the whole body?
It’s all because of the “miracle” of digestion and absorption.
We take a bite, chew and mix the food with digestive enzymes in our saliva. It all goes to the stomach where it’s mixed with the hydrochloric acid (aka stomach acid) before meeting secretions from the pancreas: baking soda (yup, we make that in our body) and other powerful digestive enzymes. Then begins a long (~20ft/6m long) journey through the small intestine.
Let’s pause here and consider all this biochemical break down.
Every bite we take needs to be processed down to its “building blocks”: macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, etc.).
Then, the protein is processed into amino-acids; fats into fatty acids; carbohydrates and starches into sugar molecules. Minerals and vitamins are also released from the food matrix. This is the biochemical precision of digestion.
After the breakdown, the absorption happens.
As the digested food moves along the small intestine, all these awesome nutrients are being freed up and get absorbed into the bloodstream. They either go in “passively”, like juice going through a sieve, or they need to be “actively” pulled in with a help of various “transporters”.
Gut microbes also play a very important role in absorption of fats and certain vitamins, as they thrive on the indigestible parts of our food: fiber.
Once in the blood, nutrients pass a check in the liver and, if approved as safe, they are distributed to the whole body, where single cells, whole tissues and organs can benefit from them.
The bottom line: we may choose the best foods out there, but if we are not able to break them down, or something interferes with absorption, we won’t get the benefits.
So how do we ensure optimal digestion and absorption?
Here’s a short-list of factors that affect these important processes:
- Poor eating hygiene. No, it’s not about how clean you are, but HOW you eat your food. If someone eats on the go, doesn’t chew well, or is multitasking, they are risking low levels of stomach acid and poor digestion as a result. Poor digestion means poor breakdown and leads to poor absorption.
- Drinking too much water with meals. This dilutes the stomach acid and can impair digestion. Hydration is very important, but drink your water in-between your meals.
- Drinking coffee or tea with meals. Both of these antioxidant-rich beverages contain tannins, which are very efficient binders of minerals. This prevents proper mineral absorption from food or drink. Adding regular milk or plant-based milk to these beverages may decrease that nutrient-binding effect. But even still, you don’t want to drink too much (see above). And apparently, caffeine greatly affects iron absorption. So it’s best to enjoy these beverages in between meals as well.
- Taking over-the-counter medication. PPI’s – stomach acid lowering meds, do exactly that – weaken your digestion. If you’re experiencing heartburn, find a functional medicine practitioner to get to the root cause of the issue, so that you don’t have to keep “band-aiding” the symptoms and risking much more dire consequences.
- Painkillers are not benign either. NSAIDs (ibuprofen, Tylenol, etc.) if taken consistently can damage the precious GI tract lining and decrease its ability to absorb nutrients.
- Stress. Kind of obvious, right? But we often forget that being in the “fight or flight” mode turns off the digestive system. Even low grade stress over time can decrease the ability to break down food and absorb nutrients. Try taking 3 deep breaths before each meal to offset the daily stress.
- Alcohol. It’s a natural toxin to the body and it can damage the stomach and small intestine lining. Enjoy socially but limit to a minimum to protect your digestion.
- Grazing. It may keep your blood sugar from going too far down, but it prevents so called “cleansing waves” of intestinal contractions to occur. Pair that with a simple carbohydrate-rich daily menu and you may end up with good bugs in the wrong place, aka SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) or yeast overgrowth. Both of these conditions lead to poor nutrient absorption and usually require support from a functional medicine practitioner.
- Food combinations. This usually is not that much of a concern, because the body balances itself. But it’s good to know that certain nutrients compete, while some enhance each other. Calcium competes with iron, but Vitamin C helps the body absorb it. So, eating your kale with cheese is not the best combo. Put some olive oils and lemon juice on it instead.
- Poor quality of cooking oils. All those mass-produced oils in plastic, translucent bottles are harming your cellular membranes. Poor cell membrane health = very poor absorption. Choose cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil over canola, soybean, cottonseed or other commercial oils.
The concept of optimal absorption is super important when it comes to choosing your supplements. After all you want to get the maximum benefit out of your investment.
If the formulation is full of fillers and binders it’s going to be quite hard for the body to break down and absorb. For this reason, it’s best to choose supplements either in capsule or liquid form and avoid tablets, as they are often very tightly compressed, dissolve poorly and are packed with fillers that help with the flow of production rather than absorbability.
Liposomal supplements are a step up from the liquid and capsule supplements. This is because they not only contain only little “extra” stuff, but also because the precious molecules of the nutrients are enveloped in a coat of phospholipids – the same stuff our cellular membranes are made of. This makes the absorption process a true “breeze” for the body.
Don’t settle for poor quality of nutrients, poor digestion and absorption. Protect your microbiome (the bugs in your gut). Choose better supplements and work on the root causes of the imbalances you experience. You’re totally worth it.
Author: Kasia Hrecka, PhD, Functional Medicine Coach