A client recently asked me to write about the connection between gut health and energy production, as she saw a direct correlation between improvements in her GI health and increased energy. Without knowing it, she was experiencing the effects one of the most fundamental, and least thought about aspects of optimal health.

Everyone knows that the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is a tube that starts in your mouth and ends at the anus. Most people also know that (this mysterious process known as) digestion occurs somewhere in the GI tract and that somewhere else, nutrients are absorbed and wastes are discarded. But little thought goes into how important these processes are. One reason is that there are very few afferent neurons (i.e., neurons that carry signals from the GI tract to the brain) in the GI tract; the practical implication of this is that pain is rarely experienced in the GI tract until something is very wrong. Thus, people just don’t pay attention to what is occurring within their GI tract, and therefore don’t spend a lot of time thinking about GI health. That’s unfortunate, as this lack of attention often leads to many of the (seemingly unrelated) disorders that decrease a person’s quality of life over time.

The GI tract’s primary role in human health is to (a) process the food you eat into nutrients that the body can use to perform it’s daily functions, (b) absorb water and remove wastes and (c) provide a first line of defense from foreign invaders coming in through your mouth. A breakdown in any of these processes can severely alter how a person feels and functions throughout their lifetime.

The Importance of Optimal Digestion

Contrary to popular belief, digestion does not solely occur in the stomach, or even in the small intestine for that matter. Digestion actually starts in the mouth. When you chew up food, the motion not only breaks the food up into smaller and smaller pieces (which makes it easier for digestion to occur later on), it also mixes that food with saliva, which contains several digestive enzymes that sets the digestive processes into motion. Once more, the act of chewing stimulates both the stomach and pancreas to produce digestive juices (including hydrochloric acid and pancreatic enzymes). In addition, the act of chewing stimulates the liver and gallbladder to produce and release bile to help with the digestion of fats.

Therefore, if you don’t chew your food sufficiently to get these processes off to a good start, digestion doesn’t work right. It would be like trying to button-up and button-down dress shirt where the first button was misaligned. Missing that first step insures that nothing else lines up correctly. From a digestive standpoint, this means that the body has to work harder to try and break down the food you eat (a process which consumes a great deal of energy), which increases the likelihood of undigested or improperly digested foods passing through the GI tract. This can cause numerous imbalances, including dysbiosis (i.e., imbalances in gut flora), inflammation, malabsorption and malnutrition. Even if you ate the best food on the planet, if you don’t digest it properly, you wont’ get the full benefit from that delicious, nutritious food.

A good rule of thumb to follow is that you should chew your food until it is a liquid; for solid foods that contain fiber, that’s usually about 30-50 times per mouthful. For liquids or semi-solid foods (like smoothies), you should chew the food until it reaches body temperature (or at least 15-20 times) to alert the stomach, pancreas and gallbladder that food is on the way.

The Importance of Proper Nutrient Absorption

So let’s say a person chews their food sufficiently to break it down and get digestion off to a good start. Once they swallow that food, other imbalances can still short-circuit the work the GI tract is designed to do.

In the stomach, lack of hydrochloric acid severely compromises the ability of the body to properly break down the food you eat. This is especially important for the digestion of proteins, which require adequate hydrochloric acid to liberate the peptides and amino acids the body requires for rebuilding and repairing itself. Hydrochloric acid is also necessary to properly break down minerals into forms that are usable by the body. Once more, hydrochloric acid is one of the main ways the body can defend itself from foreign invaders (like bacteria, viruses and parasites). Without sufficient hydrochloric acid to kill them, these foreign invaders can get deeper and deeper into your body and wreak havoc on your immune system. This is one of the reasons that long-term use of proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) – like Prilosec, Prevacid and Nexium –  and H2 antagonists – like Pepsid, Tagamet and Zantac – along with other antacids (like Tums) can have such devastating effects on human health if used over time. In fact, the FDA has several web pages devoted solely to research that has shown increased risk of bone fracture, infection, nutritional deficiency and even increased mortality in those that take these medications longer than 6-12 months.

In addition, as mentioned above, imbalances in the trillions of bacteria that reside in your GI tract can set the stage for nutrient malabsorption and other  health challenges. Every day, scientists are finding new and exciting functions of the bacteria in your GI tract, ranging from the manufacture of vitamins and neurotransmitters to supporting proper immune function and even assisting in detoxification of harmful substances. But one of the most vital functions of a person’s gut flora is the assimilation of nutrients. If those bacteria are imbalanced (i.e., beneficial ones are lacking and/or there is an overgrowth of potentially harmful bacteria) a person cannot properly assimilate nutrients, which can lead to nutritional insufficiency and possibly even deficiency. In addition, some of these harmful bacteria can also cause nutritional depletion because they actually consume nutrients in order to survive; many also produce toxins (or substances that can liberate toxins from the waste products in the gut) which can cause distress in the body. The body will do everything it can to adapt to these less-than-perfect states of being; however, many of these forced adaptations produce distressing symptoms and can eventually lead to disease.

Working Towards Optimal GI Health

Therefore, it is vital to identify gastrointestinal imbalances and work towards optimizing GI health to improve not only energy levels, but to increase the probability of long-term, vibrant health. We often start with a simple health appraisal questionnaire to see if a new or current client has symptoms that could be related to improper GI function. If GI imbalances are suspected, there are numerous functional tests, including a Comprehensive Digestive Stool Analysis, that can provide us valuable information on not only on the current state and function of the GI tract, but also what we can do to remedy whatever imbalances are found. Following this systematic approach to improving GI health leads to an expedient resolution of GI symptoms, which allows a person to heal not only the GI tract and improve energy, but also supply the body the nutrients it needs for a lifetime of vibrant health.