An Ode to Digestion: How's Yours?

An Ode to Digestion… (How’s yours?)

In the world of nutritional therapy, what could possibly be even more important than identifying the foods and supplements to eat (and those to avoid or minimize)? Helping clients support and optimize their digestion can often actually be the #1 priority to start with, depending on the individual client’s needs.

After all, if you’re not able to digest and absorb the wonderful nutrients that you’re taking in, then even if you did eat a ‘perfect’ diet, you could still be faced with many negative health consequences (examples below!).

What are some clues that your digestion isn’t working well right now?

  • Bloating and gas

  • Constipation

  • Diarrhea

  • Heartburn or acid reflux

  • Getting full quickly on small amount of food

  • Undigested food in feces (or ‘oily’ feces)

  • You don’t have a gallbladder

  • Stomach discomfort

  • Food sensitivities

  • Chronic use of antacids

And here's a quick tip! Even if you don't think you're constipated, you might be. Could your digestion be 'sluggish'? Try this test. You can eat either some beets (have several to be sure), or some white sesame seeds, and monitor what you see in the toilet for awhile. You should see them in your stool between 12 to 24 hours later. If it takes much longer than 24 hours, you're constipated. 

(And if it takes less than 12 hours, that's too fast for proper absorption to take place, and your body is missing out on nutrients.)

Here are 5 examples of how compromised digestion can impact a wide variety of health issues….

  1. Digestion and Your Immune System

    A very common weak link in the digestive system is not producing enough stomach acid and enzymes to properly digest food AND ‘digest’ (that is, kill) bacteria, viruses and other invaders trying to enter your body. Not producing enough ‘gastric juices’ (stomach HCl acid and enzymes) becomes more and more common as we age, experience stress, and also with certain nutrient deficiencies. (Zinc being one of many, not to mention good old water!). When unwanted invaders or undigested proteins are able to make it past the stomach to the intestines, they can cause plenty of trouble, including increasing the risk of developing ‘leaky gut’ with its many negative consequences to the entire immune system.

(And by the way, don’t assume that experiencing heartburn or acid reflux means you have too much stomach acid! It’s actually a common symptom of low stomach acid, and taking acid-reducing medications can make the situation worse in the long run.)

As you may already know, your immune system is functioning throughout your whole body, from your skin to your lungs to mucous membranes everywhere, and certainly very much in your lymphatic system. So what’s another immune-gut connection? Throughout the intestines there are special lymphatic tissue bits (known as GALT- Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue)  which together houses 70-80% of the cells in the entire immune system! (Nutritional Therapy Association (NTA). 2022).


2. Digestion and Your Hormonal (Endocrine) System

Your endocrine system, hormones and glands included, is your body’s messaging system that regulates all processes in your body, from metabolism to brain function to stress handling to reproduction… everything! And all of your hormones, as well as the glands that produce them, are dependent on the building blocks that come from healthy fats, proteins, minerals and vitamins. So if your digestive system is not functioning well to break down and absorb all of these varied nutrients, the function of your endocrine system will also be compromised. For example, your adrenal glands (think stress response!) which are very closely tied with critical blood sugar regulation, are dependent on magnesium (a very common deficiency), as well as other minerals, vitamins and healthy fats, for their function and production of critical hormones. You may have heard of cortisol, which is one of the important ‘stress’ hormones produced by the adrenal glands. (We need cortisol in the right doses at the right times, not too little and definitely not too much.) And “studies show inverse relationships between serum cortisol and magnesium—the higher the magnesium, the lower the cortisol. Stress robs the body of magnesium—but the body must have magnesium to respond effectively to stress” (Greenblatt, 2016). And we need a well functioning digestive system to break down and absorb magnesium, whether from our diet or from supplements.


3. Digestion and Your Cardiovascular System (Heart Health and More)

After decades of misguided advice to avoid all fats for good health, many people are now sadly depleted in healthy fatty acids.Fatty acids are actually the heart’s preferred fuel source, as well as the building blocks for healthy cell membranes throughout the body, including the heart and blood vessels. We need good digestive function to break down and absorb those much needed fats. We also need minerals like calcium and magnesium to be well absorbed to help the heart with its job of contracting and relaxing, both critical!

Another important aspect of your digestion that is critical to heart health are the microbes living in your gut- your gut microbiota! Many of us have developed ‘gut dysbiosis’ (out of balance microbiome) from years of poor diet and stress, and as one example, there is evidence linking SIBO (a form of dysbiosis called Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth) with cardiovascular disease (Ponziani, et al. 2017).


4. Digestion and Your Body’s Ability to Detox

Along with detoxing through your skin and breath, two major pathways for detoxing are through feces and urine, both ‘end products’ of digestion. Bile, produced by the liver and then stored and released by the gallbladder, plays a key role in this. Along with aiding digestion of fats and absorption of fat soluble vitamins, bile also helps move toxins along to the feces, and a deficiency of bile, including the bile salts in it, can lead to a build up of toxins (Young, 2022). Healthy bile production and release, as well as production (and/or supplementation) of digestive enzymes, will help your system process both the nutrients and the toxins more effectively.

Note: If you’ve had your gallbladder removed, don’t despair! Look into supplementing with bile salts and be sure to stay well hydrated. And proper nutrition overall is also important to provide the building blocks for the bile that your liver IS still producing (or trying to), even without the gallbladder for more optimal function.


5. Digestion and Your Nervous System (Including Brain Function!)

Most of us are well aware that the foods we eat affect our physical health, including energy, weight and metabolism, hormones, heart health, and even immunity. And now you’re seeing that supporting and optimizing your digestion is a critical piece in this puzzle of nutritional wellness. 

However, I believe there is one aspect of health that most people don’t connect with nutrition, at least not enough (and now also with digestion!)- and that is brain function, including emotional wellness, memory, and the ability to focus and function at your best, even (and especially!) as you age.

So how does your digestive system impact your brain function?

  1. One example, coming back to that gut microbiome (which as you may recall is a key component of your digestive system), they actually produce many neurotransmitters (and/or the building blocks for them), including dopamine, GABA, glycine, and serotonin, to name a few.

(Note: neurotransmitters are chemical substances used throughout the nervous system that cause the transfer of nerve impulses to another nerve fiber or to other structures such as muscle fibers or organs.)

“...numerous studies demonstrate that the changes in … the gut microbiota can affect the biosynthesis and metabolism of neurotransmitters…. and subsequently affect their… concentrations in the brain, which can disturb host brain function and cognition” (Chen, Xu & Chen, 2021)


2. The gut has been called the “second brain”, and is also known as the enteric nervous system. (As Wikipedia describes, it’s the “mesh-like system of neurons that governs the function of the gastrointestinal tract.”) Part of this system includes the vagus nerve, which connects the brain with every digestive organ (as well as heart and lungs). Turns out, there are more signals sent from the gut to the brain along the vagus nerve than from the brain to the gut! What’s useful to know is that yes, you can improve digestion (among other things) by influencing the vagus nerve through breath and your thoughts, but you can also improve impacts on your brain (including your thoughts) by improving your digestion! It’s a two-way communication.

Every tissue and cell in your body- brain, heart, muscle, bone, blood, lymph, thyroid, nerve, liver, eyes, reproductive organs, …. all are depending on what you feed yourself to supply the building blocks needed for healthy cells and the energy we need to function. And as you can see, along with eating a nutritionally dense diet (that is balanced well for your individual needs), your digestive system also has to be functioning well to make use of what you deliver to it. Otherwise those beautiful nutrients may not get successfully absorbed, and the consequences will continue to accumulate over time. So to your health consciousness now, you can add growing awareness of your digestion and give it some well deserved gratitude. And notice even the subtle clues that can help you course correct, starting from wherever you are today!


Chen, Y., Xu, J., Chen, Yu (2021) Regulation of Neurotransmitters by the Gut Microbiota and Effects on Cognition in Neurological Disorders. Retrieved from

Greenblatt, James, M.D., (2016) Magnesium, the Missing Link in Mental Health? Retrieved from:

Nutritional Therapy Association. (2022). Immune System Student Guide [PDF document]. 

Ponziani, FR, Pompili, M, Stasio, ED, Zocco, MA, Gasbarrini, A and Flore R, (2017) Subclinical atherosclerosis is linked to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth via vitamin K2-dependent mechanisms. World Journal of Gastroenterology, Feb 21;23(7): 1241-1249.

Young, Becky, (2022) Everything You Want to Know About Bile Salts. Retrieved from


Why NOT to Diet (ever again), and What to Do Instead: Free video lesson and PDF

Whether or not you were planning to diet! Take this first step to optimize midlife health & metabolism for a bright future, with more free guides and videos to follow! 

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