The digestive (gastrointestinal) cluster is one that we actively interact with on a daily and regular basis. Every person makes decisions about his or her intake of meals and fluids and takes time out for elimination each day. When the habits surrounding digestion are not supportive to the gastrointestinal tract, symptoms of digestive imbalance can result.
These symptoms extend beyond just the stomach and intestines, however, because the digestive tract is pivotal for overall physiology and health. Here is a handy mnemonic for a few key roles the gastrointestinal system plays:
The fact that the digestive system plays a part in immunity and nervous system support explains why, when the digestion is "off," the whole person often feels off too. It also explains why stress and emotions can derail digestive function so easily.
We'll explore these topics one by one and draw connections between each one. The digestion also helps flush waste out of the body, a role that we'll mention throughout the digestive topics. After looking at healthy gut activity, we'll look at digestive imbalance and the diverse symptoms that can result from it.
The Active Digestive System
The digestive system responds to the food, drink, and other substances we take in and does three things to them for our bodies to get optimal nourishment:
- Selectively Absorbs
- Selectively Eliminates
We have many parts to this long tube that work together to get the job done. It starts with the mouth and esophagus which both take in food and the stomach which churns and partially digests the contents. The small intestine uses rhythmic smooth muscle contractions to move the partially digested food along its twists and turns, so that it can accomplish most of the chemical digestion and absorption of nutrients. The pancreas and liver also play a role in digestion, which we'll explore later in other sections.
The large intestine has 5 main areas of larger tubing, including the rectum, and is shaped like a rectangle whose bottom piece has dropped off toward the feet. It absorbs water from the remaining indigestible food matter, after which it passes useless waste out from the rectum.
Various chemicals and juices in the digestive process are essential for breaking a meal down into useful nutrients for the body. These include:
- Digestive enzymes that break down larger proteins and sugars
- Stomach acid, or HCl, digests food and also kills germs to keep them out of the body
- Bile, made in the liver and stored in the gall bladder, helps break down fat
- Digestive hormones signal hunger, influence appetite, and help regulate digestion
These juices are essential for not only digestion, but also detoxification and maintaining healthy weight. Now that we have a brief introduction to how this important tube works, let's look at two lesser known but also important roles of the digestive system: Immunity and Nervous System Support.
The 20-30 feet of hollow tubing making up your gastrointestinal system is built not only for digestion and absorption of nutrients, but also protecting your body from foreign particles and pathogens. Think about it--the contents added inside the stomach during a meal were once outside the stomach. The gut wouldn't indiscriminately let your body absorb everything that is coming in through you mouth.
With that in mind, the digestive system comes with a protective lining that is designed to help the immune system keep out the unwanted elements from everything you consume. It is, in fact, the largest part of the immune system. What is the lining like? Think about your outer skin and its various roles and then we can make an easy comparison to the digestive tract's lining and what it does.
Your outer skin has several features that help it function as an effective barrier to outside invaders:
- Layers of protection
- Specialized immune cells
- Healthy bacteria for general upkeep
- Slickness and moisture, to prevent dehydration and friction-related irritation
- A repair system made up of a thorough blood supply and inflammatory factors
If you get a scrape or a cut on your regular skin, you wash the damaged area, if needed apply something to disinfect it, and protectively cover it with a gauze or bandage for a short time before it heals and can protect itself. The skin can get irritations from cosmetic products and the sun, but we try and find out what the culprits are so we can soothe the area. The skin also needs a healthy level of hydration so it doesn’t become too dry and chafed. When the skin is healthy and glowing, it serves as a great boundary from the outside world and is a reflection of inner and outer health.
Think of your digestive lining as a digestive "skin." It covers the inside of the whole digestive system to protect your body in a very similar way that your outer skin protects you from foreign intruders. It's protecting from the inside rather than the outside, however, so it's not possible to stick a band aid on chafed areas or slather on lotion to maintain hydration. And it takes additional observation and detective skills to stay informed on the health status of this important immune barrier.
While the skin has two major layers, the epidermis and the dermis, the digestive system has four layers. The inner most part lining the hollow tubing is a mucous membrane that secretes mucous and is moist. Next comes a strong connective tissue layer with blood vessels and nerves, followed by a muscular layer, and finally the outermost area that anchors the digestive tract organs to its surroundings in the body. The digestive skin needs to be taken care of daily just like your outer skin, with proper hydration and nutrition.
Your outer skin has some immune helpers on it that aid the barrier in keeping out intruders. Small amounts of healthy bacteria keep the skin healthy from the outside, and on the inside tiny lymph vessels carry away toxins and foreign particles. Similarly, the digestive system has populations of healthy bacteria, or probiotics, living in it that protect the lining and help digestion. A lymphatic system called gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), the largest lymphoid organ in the body, inspects foreign particles so the immune cells can more easily recognize harmful organisms and substances.
When the gut lining is dehydrated and bombarded with a non-nourishing diet, toxic substances, medications, and overall stress, a constant and irritating low-grade inflammation can set in. The sick digestive lining can then become overly sensitive to foods and is also less effective in keeping out toxins and foreign particles. All the influences above can also kill healthy gut bacteria and disrupt digestion further.
Clearly, your digestive system has been designed as an integral part of your body’s immune system. The practical evidence for this is that often when digestive function is impaired, strange remote symptoms can pop up and ride along with more obvious digestive symptoms. These seemingly unrelated symptoms are in fact caused or exacerbated by the sick digestive system. They include:
- Allergic hypersensitivities
- Fuzzy thinking
- Skin issues such as eczema and acne
- Autoimmune conditions
- Joint pains
Keeping the digestive immune lining healthy helps keep the rest of the body healthy too! By restoring digestive balance, attending to gut inflammation, and clearing the path toward healthy immune responses, you can improve and eliminate the diverse symptoms above.
The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is a web of nerve cells that weaves into the lining of the gut. The ENS directly controls the digestive system and communicates with the brain and spinal cord too about what's going on. While it's sometimes identified as part of the involuntary/autonomic nervous system, which controls breathing, heart rate, and other involuntary or reflexive actions, the ENS can also function independently of it. It's basically like a "second brain," which is a nickname it is frequently dubbed.
An ENS Experiment
Do you feel tingly sensations, a dropping feeling, butterflies, queasiness, or any other funny feeling in that area? You may find that just by thinking about something that elicits emotion, a corresponding feeling is triggered in the gut. That might be how the phrase "gut feeling" came about.
The word ‘enteric’ is related to the intestines, and 'nervous system' refers to the cells inside the ENS that are similar to those in your brain and spinal cord. The ENS is what just lead to your thoughts creating a funny feeling in your stomach a moment ago. In fact, over 90% of the body's serotonin is found in the gut's enteric nervous system. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that leads to feelings of well-being and happiness. Half of the neurotransmitter dopamine is also found in the ENS. Dopamine is associated with the reward center of the brain, providing feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement so a person is motivated to perform certain activities. The second brain in your gut actually uses more than 30 neurotransmitters that are common to those found in the brain.
The central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and enteric nervous system are in constant communication about digestive function and sensory input. That is why the act of just seeing yummy food or smelling it can make the stomach grumble as digestive juices start to flow in preparation for a meal. What this also means is that digestive function can affect mental-emotional health in powerful ways that are still being explored through research. Think of how eating chocolate makes many people feel happy.
Emotions themselves also have an effect on the digestion. Here are a few examples:
-Anxiety or nervousness signaling a mini "fight-or-flight response," redirecting blood from the stomach to the periphery and causing “butterflies in the stomach”
-Overall stress affecting nerve and smooth muscle function in the gut, causing heartburn or irritable bowel symptoms
-Anger creating a burning feeling in the pit of the stomach
-Excitement spurring on a bowel movement
You may be familiar with these sensations or others that demonstrate a link between emotional triggers and digestive response. Sometimes the gastrointestinal tract brings the emotions to your awareness even before your brain offers thoughts on it. Has this ever happened to you?
This fascinating connection adds more tools to your tool box for healing from chronic symptoms, preventing new ones, and improving overall health...both physical and mental-emotional. Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind:
- Improper digestion, instead of allowing food to energize and fuel the body and mind, can make both the mind and body feel low, irritable, and anxious
- Low energy from an unhealthy gut can not only drain the body, but also drain the mind and lead to fuzzy thinking, depression, and overall murky mental-emotional health
- The relationship also works both ways. So, unchecked stress and mental-emotional anguish can alter digestive function and lead to digestive symptoms
Let's explore some lifestyle factors that commonly interrupt and alter digestive function (next tab).
There are many ways that healthy digestion can be derailed, and when you factor in the uniqueness of each person's lifestyle, those potential wrenches grow in number. Rather than looking under a microscope at each enzyme, hormone, and probiotic strain needed for healthy digestion, we'll paint broader strokes of lifestyle patterns that tend to throw a monkey wrench into the smooth processing of food and absorption of nutrients.
- After waking up in the morning, there is a key step that many people skip, which can already set back digestion and metabolism for the day. Breakfast. I know you've heard it before..."make sure to eat a healthy breakfast." A meal within the first hour of waking up is crucial to proper digestion. Overnight, your body has been relying on fuel stores within the body for energy. Upon waking, it wants to be fed...not during your next lunch break, or after work when you get home. But now. And coffee with a donut won't cut it if you want to approach your diet in a balanced way. Breakfast gets the metabolism going and ensures your digestion won't experience undue stress from prolonged hunger.
See if you feel any different after a week. How's your energy, your mood, and your concentration level compared to before? Did eating breakfast change your eating habits for the rest of the day?
- Sleep habits are also a factor that affects both diet and digestion greatly. Being short on sleep affects hormonal balance, including that of the digestive hormones that signal hunger and fullness. Being sleep deprived, a person may find that they are not hungry during usual hours, have no appetite, or binge on heavy foods more than usual. Disrupting the sleep routine easily disrupts meal routines, and consequently disrupts your digestive system's routine functioning.
- Dietary choices are also key in maintaining smooth digestion. Staying away from refined wheat and sugars and processed foods has emerged in the last decade as a habit essential to healthy gut functioning. Along with that, it is important to add in plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy protein. But what are two key ingredients that all types of eaters forget easily? Fiber and water. Dietary fiber and water keep the digestive system regularly eliminating waste and allowing room for new meals. Without regular flushing, waste hangs around in the bowel and causes many common complaints, including gas and constipation.
- Does this scenario sound familiar to you? You wait until hungry creatures are howling in your stomach before you grab something to eat, which you wolf down in under ten minutes. Then, back to work! The next culprit that gets many people's digestive tubes in a knot is STRESS. Both emotional stress and stressful habits surrounding eating rob the digestive tract of the time and space to properly digest a meal. Undigested, or unattended to, emotions such as built up irritation, anger, anxiety, and sadness also affect the smoothness of digestion. As much as possible, it's important to make the setting of your meals appealing and calm enough to spark both your appetite and the processing of food.
These are just a few of the factors that contribute to digestive symptoms. For more information, peruse the rest of the site and the other Star Clusters. Just about every other Star Cluster out there affects digestion! Here are a few:
Next, let's explore the Digestive Stars.
Since the digestive system contributes to nutrition, elimination, immunity, and nervous system function, the possible symptoms that result from digestive imbalance are diverse. The longer digestion is impaired, the more these symptoms snowball and affect other star clusters. We mentioned some immune-related symptoms under the Gut Immunity tab, including allergic and autoimmune symptoms. Autoimmunity is a large area of health affected by, and in many cases caused by, poor digestion.
What is autoimmunity? The body's immune system is built to single out and eliminate foreign invaders from the body. Intruders include certain bacteria, viruses, toxins, damaged or mutated cells, and pathogens in general. On a first encounter, the body will meet the bacteria or virus and register its properties so that it can be effectively dealt with if it happens to return in the future. Oftentimes, pathogens do make repeat visits and when they do, the immune system is ready to--Attack!
How does the body know how not to attack itself? It has also registered this information, as in self=safe. In autoimmune conditions, the body's immune system has become hypersensitive with blurred boundaries. Think about allergies. In allergic conditions, the immune system reacts to substances in the outside environment that it would normally ignore. Similarly, with autoimmune symptoms, the body overreacts to normal body tissues that it would normally ignore.
Autoimmunity heavily researched to discover its cause, but one thing is clear--the act of neglecting body functions, especially smooth digestion, can predispose the immune system to confusion. With confusion, comes allergic and autoimmune symptoms. The digestion is a huge part of immunity, and when its not receiving quality nutrition or has waste sitting in it for days, it has less energy to protect your body from harmful critters. Keep this in mind as you read through the Digestive Stars.
Also good to keep in mind--the digestive system houses a complete electrical web inside it that communicates with the brain and spinal cord. The signals sent out from this enteric nervous system affects not only your digestion, but also your overall mental-emotional health since the ENS connects to the whole body. You will see symptoms under the Digestive Stars that point to this unique connection. Keep reading down the page to find out more.
Click through the symptoms below to find out more about the stars that make up the digestion cluster. You'll notice how one star can easily affect other stars. For example, sluggish elimination can lead to toxin build up in the gut, which can lead to acne. See how many connections you can spot among the digestive stars. For more information and help on how to resolve digestive imbalances that may be affecting your health, click on the button below to take the Digestion Survey and visit our Services page.
There are a host of digestive symptoms that fall into an area best described as Sluggish Symptoms. Digestion is a movement. Powerful muscles along the digestive tract contract from signals that your meals provide, allowing digestion, absorption, and elimination to take place. The movement is called peristalsis, combining 'peri' (around) with stalsis (compression). The wave-like compressions that the digestive tube makes around the food kneads it and works it until everything useful and absorbable is removed and a solid waste product is left that should be easy to pass out through elimination. In fact, sphincters, or valves are put in place along the digestive tract so that food only moves one way through it.
When movement in the digestive system drags or stands still, you get Sluggish Symptoms. They are the kind that make you feel heavy, un-energetic, and at times very low both physically and mental-emotionally. These symptoms include:
- Distended Abdomen
- Low Energy
- Weight Gain
Factors such as a diet high in processed foods, low in fiber, and low in hydration combined with little to no exercise and burdensome stress are ingredients that often mix together to create these symptoms. Processed foods, especially those high in refined carbohydrates and sugars, take more work for the gut to process and add stress to the digestive system's motility. Those foods that are nutrient and energy packed, however, allow for healthier peristalsis. Fiber also helps to keep the gut's muscles moving, by providing bulk to the food matter that signals peristalsis to Go! Water helps keep the contents moist enough so they don't pack into a dried up ball, and are therefore easier to pass.
Then, eat the food and see how you feel after about an hour. If you rated the food as very sluggish, does your body feel it? If you rated the food as not very sluggish, how do you feel after eating it?
Exercise creates movement without but also within. It stimulates nerves in the digestive system to keep food matter moving along through the tract. It also helps decrease stress, a major contributing factor to constipation. When energy is used up being stressed, mini fight-or-flight responses shunt blood and natural movement away from the digestive tract. Not to mention, when people are stressed they tend to drop healthy diet and exercise habits and add escape-focused activities like smoking, drinking alcohol, and watching hours of T.V. The escape tactics then interfere with digestion on top of the initial stress.
Constipation and bloating are more than just annoying symptoms. They allow toxin build-up in the gut which can lead to other symptoms. One of these symptoms is candida yeast overgrowth, as the yeast likes to feed on waste products in the gut. Toxin build-up is also a burden on the whole body, leading to low energy and a weakened immune system.
The ultimate effect of the Sluggish Symptoms is low energy and of course feeling--sluggish. If you think about it, you don't want the waste matter from food sitting around in your abdomen for days and weighing you down like a spare tire.
When eating food leads to more feelings of fatigue than of increased energy, it's time to take notice. Food is supposed to break down naturally in the digestive system and refuel your body's cells. The waste matter from the food is passed out, and you start all over again. When one of these steps isn't working well, the food that you eat can't lift up your energy the way it's supposed to. Food fatigue results, or fatigue actually stemming from the food you eat.
Digestion-related fatigue can often be felt after meals, but can eventually be an around-the-clock problem. Why would your body feel tired from the food you eat? First, it's important to look at the fact that digestion takes energy. When you eat a meal, more blood is shunted to the digestive system to handle the energy requirements of breaking down and assimilating nutrients from it. A common problem in diets today is the concept of "too much of a good thing, which can actually turn out to be "too much of a bad thing." Basically, a meal is most easy on the digestive system when it's balanced. Some nutrient dense carbs, proteins, healthy fats, and a sprinkle of salt, herbs, or whatever else makes for smooth digestion. There isn't too much of anything, so your digestion can handle it.
When a meal contains too much fat, for example, the gall bladder has to pump much more bile into your intestines to break down the large globules. When there is a disproportionate loading of carbs or protein, digestive and pancreatic enzymes have to work double time to digest these. The digestive organs, including the stomach, intestines, liver, gall bladder, and pancreas are suddenly like an office where all the workers are too busy, with stacks of papers on their desks and no time to handle it all. This burden on the digestion leads to fatigue.
Food portions also play a part in Food Fatigue. When the amount of food on a plate is maximized, beyond the caloric needs of the person eating it, the digestion has to work too hard again. Oftentimes, both a meal's large portion size and carb (or fat) loading are in effect simultaneously. When the digestion becomes overworked and tired, so do you.
The brain is fueled by glucose, which has to come from the breakdown of meals. Most of us don't think about what effect our meals have on the brain. If you've ever seen a group of kids down a birthday cake and run around afterward, you know that it's not only their bodies that are wired, but also their minds. They act silly and giddy, basically like a kid in a candy store. A carbohydrate-dense meal, like a huge plate of spaghetti, will also show you the effect of food on both body and mind. Typically you will feel lazy after eating so many carbs but probably also sleepy and not ready to solve any complicated math problems.The mind gets ready to sleep too after a carbohydrate binge.
People who have impaired digestion frequently report feeling a fuzzy mind. Taking a look at what poor digestion does to the body, it's easier to see how a fuzzy mind can result. As we talked about under Food Fatigue, digestion takes energy. Ideally, we want digestion to take just the right amount of energy. In other words, we don't want our bodies to work too hard breaking down humongous meals or foods loaded with too much fat or sugar. This overloaded digestion won't be able to do its best work, leading to inadequate nutrition and energy for the body's other functions.
Instead of feeling energized after a gigantic and poorly digested meal, the body will feel sluggish and slow. But that won't be all. The brain can also feel slow and foggy, lacking in sharpness or clarity. First off, the body is preoccupied with an overloaded digestion, shunting blood away from the brain. Second, heavy diets often lead to sluggish digestion with constipation, gas, and bloating. Toxins building up in the gut from constipation can affect the rest of the body making it feel tired and "out of it," including the brain.
People who improve their digestion often feel a remarkable return of mental function and clarity that had been robbed of energy before. It's almost like they feel smarter!
There are few things that irritate people more than skin issues, especially ones that are visible to the rest of the world. Whether it's acne blemishes across the forehead or eczema crawling along the arm, most people wish these symptoms could disappear in a snap of the fingers. Unfortunately, there is no magic cure for many skin conditions. But, there is an organ system that has a huge part to play in your skin's health. You guessed it...the digestive system.
We're not talking about the specific foods you eat, or the myth that chocolate causes acne. We're focusing on digestive movement. As we've been talking about throughout the Digestive Stars, supporting healthy movement through the gastrointestinal tract is key to reducing and preventing many common symptoms, skin issues being among them. Oftentimes, people will try and point the finger at a particular food or drink that is worsening symptoms. Of course, each person is different and food sensitivities can and often do factor into skin issues. For example, many people eliminate gluten from their diets to find a clearing of the skin.
One key factor that can improve anyone's skin condition is, simply put--gut movement. Anything you can do to get the digestive tract's contents flowing through it smoothly will help improve skin health. It is hard to expect consistently clear skin when a ball of food is sitting in one place in the intestines for days. This food will attract yeast, release gas, back up and impair digestion, and overall make the body feel toxic. This toxic feeling extends to you skin too. Two pieces of the puzzle that keep food matter moving in the gut, and your skin clear in the process, are fiber and water. Exercise also helps in a lot of cases. Fiber and water are so important to healthy skin, we'll even mention them one more time.
Allergies and Congestion
How does poor digestion contribute to allergic symptoms such as congestion? As we talked about before, a big part of the immune system is embedded in the gut, which screens the foods and other substances you consume. When digestion is impaired, oftentimes the digestive lining is compromised as well. The immune system lives inside the gut lining and it won't be able to work as well either to keep out foreign particles and pathogens.
Typically we think of allergies as a hyper-immune response to outside elements, such as pollen and ragweed. In the case of allergies associated with digestion, the body is reacting to foreign materials introduced to the body through a compromised gut lining and its immune network. Similar symptoms can result and even worsen the environmental allergies that you are already prone to. The gut can even become intolerant of specific foods that were okay to consume with a healthier digestive tract. Food sensitivities can result.
The symptoms typically seen can include:
- Nasal congestion
- Runny nose
- Feeling run down, with low energy
For allergic symptoms, whether stemming from inside the gut or the external environment, it is always helpful to support healthy digestion as much as possible for an optimal immune response.
Undigested Thoughts and Emotions
Have you ever felt moody throughout the day and wondered what could be causing the unpredictable shifts? In fact, the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) in your digestive system is a connection between the gut and your thoughts and emotions. Inefficient digestion can make you feel like discomfort and irritation in your digestive system, as if food is undigested. When this information travels along the electrical web of the ENS, it can add discomfort and irritation to your mental-emotional health too, making you feel as if thoughts and emotions are undigested.
These ENS-related symptoms are different for everyone, depending on how much digestive impairment exists. Some people find that by correcting digestive imbalances, they have a whole new outlook on life and a renewed energy. For others, anxiety and depression that already exists is made less intense without the burden of symptoms associated with poor digestion. Even though the Enteric Nervous System is still being explored scientifically through research, it doesn't hurt to maintain a healthy digestion toward feeling better overall both physically and mental-emotionally.
Typical mental-emotional symptoms that can be associated with gut health include:
- PMS symptoms that are made worse for women
Joint Pain, and Autoimmunity
With a large part of the body's immune system living in the gut, what we choose to take into our bodies becomes more important. Everything we consume enters the customs checkpoint of the gut's immune-associated lymph cells. What it okays goes through, and what it rejects travels out. In an ideal world.
In the case of the average modern diet, stagnant living, and high stress schedules, it is more difficult to maintain a healthy gut and immune system. When the gut's immune system is impaired, it creates not only hypersensitivity symptoms such as allergies, but it also causes the body to become more sensitive to its own internal environment. The ways in which the autoimmunity effects play out are different for each person, but one way in which they can appear is through joint pain and weakness.
An unhealthy digestive system, along with its sick immune system, allows foreign invaders and toxins into the body's environment. These intruders can travel through the blood stream and eventually become lodged in joints and other body tissues, causing inflammation, swelling, and pain. Additionally, the immune system will become very hyper-aware while trying to keep track of and eliminate the flood of intruders. After a while, it gets nutty and confused and becomes more sensitive even to its own tissues. A host of other autoimmune symptoms can also play out, sometimes occurring in tandem in the same person. These symptoms include:
- Crohn's symptoms
- Autoimmune skin conditions
- Arthritic symptoms
- Gluten sensitivities
- Worsening insulin resistance
It's important to support a healthy digestive system so that it can keep the body's internal environment balanced, protected, and not hypersensitive to either internal or external stimuli.
Get more information about connections in health related to digestion by reading the Health Constellations blog. Click on the icon below to explore the latest topics: