Breaking Down Digestion


by Lynnsey Hooper

You’ve heard the saying over and over, “we are what we eat.” This is absolutely true, but how do we become what we eat? Digestion is the pathway in which we obtain these structures, particles, and nutrients to build our cells, which build our tissues, which build our organ systems, which combine to complete our bodies!

To understand digestion let’s first look at the simple north to south process in a fully functional manner. Starting with the eyes and nose we begin a release of chemicals from the brain, cascading reactions throughout our digestive system to prepare our bodies for the upcoming meal and breakdown of food. In our mouth, proper chewing combines with salivary amylase to begin the breakdown of carbohydrates/starches. The bolus then travels south to the stomach where an ideal pH of 1.5-3 works in combination with a protein enzyme, pepsin to continue to breakdown the carbs and protein. This acidic mush, known as chyme, travels to the stomach where the acidity initiates the release of very important pancreatic enzymes and basic substances to calm the acid storm along with bile and bile salts for fat emulsion. Our small intestine is the main site of absorption. In this long tube are trillions of microbes that assist in continuing the breakdown of the chyme. From the small intestine, the chyme travels to the large intestine where final breakdown from more beneficial bacteria and absorption/re-absorption takes place before excretion.

Get the gist? Digestion is a technical route full of feedback, reactions, and processes that must happen in the above order for successful nutrient absorption. 

Unfortunately, digestion can easily go wrong at numerous points in the process. Such as:

  • Not taking the time to prepare, smell, and set up your food. This hinders your body’s cascade reactions to accept and prepare for digestion. Improper chewing sends larger particles of food into the stomach where it cannot be completely digested.

  • Having low stomach acid  – this means you do not break down food or activate the protein enzyme, pepsin.

  • Particles of unbroken food along with low stomach acid travel into the small intestine where pancreatic enzymes are not released (they are signaled by acidity levels) and slow moving bile causes fat emulsification issues.

  • With the inability to break down proteins, these undigested particles begin to degrade the intestinal wall causing inflammation and microscopic tears/holes which then to leaky gut and auto-immune issues.

  • These issues can spill over to the large intestine where beneficial gut bacteria becomes overwhelmed and overruled by its nasty microbial counterparts.

In the long trail of digestion dysfunction, there can be a few simple solutions. Such as eating slowly, supplementing with stomach acid, and including probiotics in your diet.

Stomach Acid you say? Stomach Acid!
To ensure great breakdown from the beginning, choosing a supplement with a form of HCl/Betaine and pepsin/pepsinogen to aid in initial digestion (of course with eating slowly and chewing adequately) can drastically change your digestion from beginning to end. What exactly is HCl? HCl is hydrochloric acid. This is secreted by our stomach in preparation for the on coming meal. It’s primary functions are to assist in breaking down carbohydrates, though it is essential for the absorption and assimilation of many vitamins and minerals as well. HCl also activates a very important enzyme precursor pepsinogen, turning it into pepsin, to catalyze and break down proteins as mentioned above. Supplementing a bit of HCl will assist in this important step to ensure a healthier intestinal tract and appropriate digestion.

Form the stomach we move into the small intestine. With a proper balance of HCl from supplementation, your small intestine and pancreas will work together to secrete a basic substance called sodium bicarbonate to calm the acid. But, as you’ve learned, it doesn’t stop there!

In combination with the stomach acid supplement, a probiotic is key to include in a daily diet! Our bodies are filled with trillions of little “bugs” working for and against us. These are bacteria, that when balanced, create a delicate ecosystem in our intestines that aid in digestion of fiber, resistant starches, and undigested foods and neutralize some of the harmful byproducts created from food breakdown. They also aid in the absorption of nutrients, as well as producing Vitamin K. These beneficial bacteria in our gut also help to balance the harmful ones and support our immune system. These little guys are obviously very important!! Symptoms like diarrhea and constipation are key signs your gut flora is “off” or in a state of dysbiosis.

Choosing supplementation for HCl
Look for a product containing Betaine HCl and pepsin. This is well rounded as these two should work together. These can be found at People’s RxThorne Research, or Biotics Research Labs.

Warning: Betaine/HCl should not be used by anyone taking anti-inflammatory medication, corticosteroids, or other NSAIDS as this can affect the intestinal lining integrity. Instead use a product like Digestive Bitters as a safe natural HCl stimulant. HCl should also be taken only with meals that include protein – with this said, you can vary the amount you take in, depending on an increase or decrease in protein per meal.

Dosage: “The most effective adult dose of Betaine HCl is 5 to 7 of the 650 milligram capsules per meal, with pepsin.”  Why Stomach Acid is Good For You by Jonathan Write 

Read more on how to choose dosages for yourself HERE. I would also highly recommend the book tagged above for a greater insight on benefits.

Choosing a Probiotic
Choose food first! Food sources are the oldest and most desired form of probiotic obtainment. Therefore, naturally fermented foods are a great and long term solution. Choose sauerkraut or make your own, along with kimchi. Drinking a bit of kombucha is also a great ways to increase your flora. FYI – do not over eat or drink these!

Supplementation with a probiotic is also a quick and simple way to ensure good gut flora. Choose a brand that has as many strains as possible (variety is best!), the more strains the better (measured in colony forming units or CFUs). Mix it up too – when you’re done with one strain or brand, choose another with a different variety of bacteria to continue to increase the benefit. You can find quality probiotics HEREHERE, and HERE.

The above are simple fixes for a messy problem. Remember that food always comes first. Choose wisely on those foods that align with your body and treat your gut right! Supplement sparingly and ask for help when needed.

Nicole Hughes