This article is one of a health and wellness series written by Elizabeth Davis, based on interviews with Nyingma Institute instructor Donna Morton, who teaches Kum Nye Tibetan Yoga and topics related to nutrition and physical therapy.
by Elizabeth Davis
Say hello to your gut: the powerful system of highly sensitive sacs, tubes, receptors, and transmitters that extend 25 or so feet from your mouth to anus. You may not think about it often, but this interior “food processor” is one of your best friends. It works diligently, around the clock, to transform the food you eat into essential nourishment.
Although many of us have heard about the new science of gut health — which turns out to be intimately tied to brain health — we rarely give much attention to this good friend called the gut. Usually, it gets our attention only when it sends out alarm signals of distress, when problems such as constipation or diarrhea, acid reflux or bloating send us searching for drugs to alleviate discomfort.
Wouldn’t it be better to learn how to prevent gut distress by getting to know and respect the beauty of our digestive system? According to health expert Donna Morton, a little knowledge and a friendly mindset go a long way toward making gut health a pleasurable part of a healthier, more enjoyable life.
A nutrition consultant and physical therapist, Morton educates people about their digestive system so that they can enjoy robust good health. “In fact,” she says, “the GI tract is a kind of specialized inner skin. It contacts the environment more intimately than our outer skin. Literally tons of foods and fluids pass through this gastrointestinal tract over a lifetime. Everything we consume is a source of information and communication to our cells. It’s downright miraculous what’s going on.”
Morton likens gut care to car maintenance and starts with three basic recommendations:
· Learn the basics of how your gut works by taking a tour “under the hood.”
· Tend to the quality of “fuel” you provide your gut.
· Run the “machinery” in a smooth and relaxed way by taking time to savor and enjoy good food.
Your Digestive Tract: A Brief Tour
Your digestive system actually starts working the moment you see and smell food. That’s because your brain and your gut are close partners. The brain initiates and optimizes digestion through your senses. As your nose sniffs the grilled onions, and your eyes take in the bright red color of the tomatoes, the vagus (pronounced VAY gus) nerve connecting brain and gut alerts stomach and pancreas to produce acids and enzymes, and increases blood flow to the intestines. (Scientists call this the “cephalic phase” of digestion.)
“You take that first bite,” Morton explains. “Already your saliva is pumping out enzymes that begin to digest carbohydrates. As you chew, the sweetness of the food intensifies — so chewing food longer literally gives you more of the sweet flavor available in your food.”
Action Step: Take time to enjoy the pleasure of eating slowly and attentively, knowing that your mind is a key player in healthy digestion.
Inside the Gut
What happens next? “Then the food moves down the esophagus into the stomach, an expandable muscular bag — think of a bagpipe that has muscular contractions. As it churns food with enzymes and acid, it breaks down proteins into their elemental parts.”
After the food gets processed, it squirts into the small intestine, which is small in diameter — about 1 inch — but not in length. It actually reaches to about 25 feet, all coiled inside your belly. The interior of those coils have little villi (pronounced vi-LIE), which look like a shag carpet and are designed to absorb nutrients, including vitamins and minerals.
The next stop is your large intestine, home to most of several pounds of bacteria that live inside your gut. Those bacteria are your indispensable partners in digestion, your “microbiome” in scientific terms. These bacterial helpers actually outnumber the cells in your body by 10 to 1, and they perform all sorts of tasks essential to your health, from producing vitamins and fatty acids to supporting your immune system.
Keeping your gut bacteria happy is one of the best ways to keep yourself healthy. Eating is not just about feeding you — it’s about feeding the bacteria that feed you.
Action Step: Ask yourself, “What am I feeding my bacterial friends?”
To take good care of your gut bacteria, you want to “fuel” them with prebiotic and probiotic foods. According to Morton, “Eating fermented foods is a way of seeding the gut with health-promoting bacteria. Whether it’s a good quality yogurt, kefir, kombucha, miso, pickles, krauts, there are many ferments that can boost our helpful gut bacteria. And we really want to do it on a daily basis.”