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Eat, Drink, and be Healthy

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Everyone is familiar with the old saying, "You are what you eat." A more accurate rendition might be, "You are what you absorb," because that's what digestion is all about: It's the process that converts food into substances that can be absorbed by the body.

Everyone is familiar with the old saying, "You are what you eat." A more accurate rendition might be, "You are what you absorb," because that's what digestion is all about: It's the process that converts food into substances that can be absorbed by the body.

Those substances include sugars to fuel your cells, amino acids that serve as the building blocks of tissues, and fatty acids which are incorporated into cellular membranes. They also include vitamins and minerals that act as catalysts for countless biochemical reactions as well as other constituents necessary for life. Because every system in your body requires a steady supply of these essential nutrients, it is obvious that optimal health depends on a well-functioning digestive system.

Eat the Right Stuff

The first thing you need to do to ensure that your digestive system is working up to par is to feed it the foods it was designed to process. The engineering specs on all automobiles include the type of fuel required for maximum performance. Whether your car runs on regular or premium gasoline, diesel, or even battery power, if you give it the wrong fuel, you're going to foul up the system. The same is true of the human body.

What fuel does our digestive system require for top performance? Let's compare the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract to those of other mammals that are uniquely suited to their diet. Meat-eating carnivores such as dogs and cats have sharp, pointed fangs ideal for tearing off chunks of meat. Although they produce insignificant levels of digestive enzymes in their saliva, their stomachs churn out copious amounts of hydrochloric acid required for the digestion of meat. They also have a short intestinal tract, just three to six times the length of their bodies, designed to quickly eliminate the toxic wastes produced by rapidly putrefying meat.

Plant-eating animals, including horses and cows as well as chimpanzees and other primates, have well-developed molars in the back of their mouths for chewing and grinding, along with enzymes in the saliva that initiate the digestion of carbohydrates. Because the breakdown of plant foods requires considerably less hydrochloric acid, they only secrete a small fraction of the acid that carnivores secrete. In addition, the intestinal tracts of plant eaters are much longer, up to 12 times the length of their bodies, allowing for the slower process necessary for complete digestion of high-fibre plant foods.

Now, let's look at humans. We have flat molars and no sharp fangs. Our salivary enzymes and gastric juices are more akin to those of plant-eating animals, and our intestinal tract averages 10 to 11 times our body length. Physiologically speaking, it is obvious that the human body is designed to eat plant foods. I'm not recommending that you go completely vegetarian. Humans have been eating a varied, omnivorous diet for millennia. But I do believe that our failure to take into consideration our body's "fuel specs" has led to the plethora of digestive problems that afflict modern man.

Conquer Constipation

One of the most common digestive problems is constipation. A few years ago researchers at Laval University in Quebec City surveyed more than a thousand people across Canada and found that 27.2 percent of them reported having had constipation within the previous three months. This is hardly surprising when you consider that North Americans eat an average of only 16 grams of fibre per dayless than half the ideal intake.

As well as lowering cholesterol and protecting against diabetes and some types of cancer, eating lots of high-fibre fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains does wonders for digestion. Fibre softens the stool and gives it bulk, which increases the frequency and quantity of bowel movements. This not only helps prevent constipation, but it also reduces risk and symptoms of hemorrhoids, diverticular disease, diarrhea, colon cancer, and irritable bowel syndrome.

In addition to eating a high-fibre diet, drink plenty of water, and exercise most days of the week. For occasional constipation, use bulk-forming fibre such as psyllium seed or ground flaxseed. I do not recommend long-term use of stool softeners or stimulant laxatives. They can be habit-forming, interfere with your body's use of nutrients, and even damage intestines.

Quench the Pain of Heartburn

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or heartburn, occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, causing pain and inflammation. Overeating is usually to blame, with fried or fatty foods, chocolate, and alcohol being particularly problematic because they cause the valve at the end of the esophagus to relax, allowing acid to travel upwards from the stomach. Other irritating foods include citrus, tomato products, and coffee.

The best cure for heartburn is prevention. That means eliminating troublesome foods and beverages, eating slowly, and knowing when to stop. It takes about 20 minutes for the signal of fullness to reach your brain, so if you're gobbling down your food in half that time, you're more likely to overeat. Keep in mind that digestion begins in the mouth, and the simple act of savouring each mouthful will go a long way toward preventing indigestion. Drinking lots of water will also help as it soothes the esophagus and flushes out stomach acid.

If you do suffer from heartburn, avoid reaching for an antacid or acid-blocking drug. These drugs may relieve heartburn, but they also impair digestion, in particular, the digestion of protein. Chronic use of these drugs also allows the overgrowth of H. pylori bacteria, which can cause ulcers. A superior alternative is deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL). Unlike drugs that alter stomach acidity, DGL improves the integrity of the stomach lining, and rather than masking the burn of acid reflux, DGL actually helps heal the esophagus. To avoid triggering reflux during sleep, wait at least two hours after a meal before lying down.

Get a Grip on Gas

Another common digestive complaint is excessive gasan inevitable byproduct of digestion. However, uncomfortable, embarrassing belching, bloating, and flatulence are not normal. One way to minimize these problems is to eat more slowly. Horace Fletcher, who wrote The ABC of Nutrition in 1903, quipped, "Nature will castigate those who don't masticate." Although I don't buy his recommendation to chew every bite of food 32 times, I do recommend that you slow down and chew your food thoroughly. This not only improves carbohydrate digestion, but it also minimizes the amount of swallowed air, which ends up as gastrointestinal gas. Other things that cause you to swallow more gas-producing air include chewing gum, sucking on hard candy, smoking, gulping drinks, and wearing poorly fitting dentures.

Not all gas enters the body through the mouth: much of it is produced in the GI tract itself. Carbohydrates that reach the large intestine incompletely digested are the foodstuff of the trillions of bacteria that inhabit your colon, and as these bacteria metabolize carbohydrates, they release gas. Unfortunately, some of the most nutritious foods are the most problematic because they contain sugars that our bodies are unable to digest.

To facilitate digestion of notoriously "gassy" foods such as beans, cruciferous vegetables, and grains, take digestive enzymes. They break down the problematic sugars in these foods before they reach the large intestine where gas is produced. Other enzymes that facilitate overall digestion include pancreatic and plant-derived proteases, amylases, and lipases, which help break down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, respectively.

Have a Happy, Healthy Holiday

I love the holiday season, and I think that occasional overindulgence is called for. However, since so much merry-making is packed into these few short weeks, I have some suggestions to make it through the holiday season with your digestive system unscathed.

  • Enjoy the season's indulgences, but don't stray too far from the diet your body was designed to eat.
  • Drink lots of water. Adequate intake of fluids ensures optimal digestion and reduces risk of constipation.
  • Don't go overboard on alcohol. Excessive alcohol can inflame the stomach lining and aggravate symptoms such as diarrhea and nausea. It also relaxes the valve that prevents stomach acid from backing up into the esophagus, causing heartburn.
  • No matter how busy you are, get regular exercise. Physical activity stimulates the activity of your intestinal muscles, helping "move things along" and improving digestion.
  • Finally, get a handle on stress. When you're stressed, digestion slows down as the body funnels its resources elsewhere. This can cause a nervous stomach, heartburn, bloating, constipation or diarrhea and worsen symptoms of ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcerative colitis.

In short, eat sensibly, drink moderately, and live healthfully.

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