What we absorb or digest properly has more importance than what we eat. And key to this is health of the digestive, or Gastro Intestinal (GI) tract. Below are a few ideas and practices to avoid the worst that can happen: lack of absorption of nutrients and food (Malabsorption).

To optimize absorption and get the most from your food, make sure you’re calm and in a good mood before eating – stress will shut down and stop the digestive process, so make sure you wind down. If you are hurried or stressed, consider having something sweet, like a banana: the sugar may well calm you down and make your body ready for food. Also smell and appreciate the smell of your food – as you do you’ll be unconsciously liberating digestive fluids ready to go to action on that food. Have a digestif, such as lemon juice in water, or bitters – these will help the stomach become acidic enough to digest food properly. And remember to chew! Not only does this break down food mechanically, chewing also stimulates the release of digestive juices. So it helps to chew whilst having a smoothie or juice!

In the end, the Gastro Intestinal tract is an orchestra of different parts that all act in a wondrous symphony to absorb nutrients. And it can be assisted with tastes that are out of this world – such as inspired dishes using health promoting super spices. Meanwhile dietary sources of fiber (from whole grains, legumes, beans, vegetables and fruit) are also key to GI health.

Spices that aid digestion

  • Umbelliferae family seeds (Anise, Caraway, Dill, Fennel): help expel gas (carminative) and relax intestinal spasms (antispasmodic)
  • Cardamom: carminative, digestant, stimulant, treats indigestion and flatulence
  • Cayenne pepper and paprika: contains capsaicin which acts as digestive and anti-ulcer aid, treats indigestion, stimulates salivary flow and increase secretion of digestive fluids in stomach
  • Cinnamon: sedative for smooth muscle (eg that lines GI tract and enacts peristalisis), carminative, digestant, diuretic, antibiotic, anti-ulcerative, stimulates weak digestion
  • Cloves: contains Eugenol (and other components) which prevent digestive tract cancers, help liver function (detoxification environmental toxins), and are anti-bacterial
  • Coriander seed: carminative and digestive aid; stimulates conversion of cholesterol to fat digesting bile acids in liver
  • Cumin: stimulates secretion of pancreatic enzymes; digestive aid and effective for flatulence; anti-bacterial; anti-fungal; enhances liver’s detoxification enzymes
  • Dill seed: contains Monoterpenes (including carvone, limonene, anethofuran) that activate and assist liver in eliminating toxins. Flavonoids assist carminative and sedative properties
  • Ginger: carminative, alleviates symptoms of gastrointestinal distress, promotes elimination of intestinal gas, promotes intestinal spasmolytic (substance that relaxes and soothes the intestinal tract)
  • Nutmeg: Carminative; Anti-diarrheal actions including improving intestinal tone and inhibiting intestinal contractions stimulated by irritating agents; food preservative, disinfectant and antiseptic of animal and plant pathogens and food poisoning and spoilage bacteria
  • Pepper (Black): Carminative and stimulates taste buds to prompt secretion of stomach acids; Anti-bacterial and Anti-oxidant; contains Peperine which increases absorption of nutrients such as selenium, B vitamins and beta-carotene, supports and enhances the liver’s detoxification processes

The process of digestion

  • Digestion begins in the mind with the Cephalic phase, whereby sensory awareness prepares the body for digestion by promoting release of digestive enzymes throughout the body.
  • The second phase is chewing in the mouth, a mechanical process which breaks down the food and mixes it with enzymes in the mouth. Swallowing takes the food to the third stage of digestion – in the stomach, where food is mixed with Gastric Acid, a chemical process of breaking down the food into smaller parts ready for absorption.
  • The third phase happens as bile from the liver and digestive enzymes from the Pancreas are added and further break down the food.
  • The fourth phase occurs as food passes through the Small Intestine where nutrients, now small enough, are absorbed.
  • The fifth occurs as food passes through the Large Intestine, where food is processed for elimination.
  • The next stage occurs as all the blood from the digestive tract is fed first to the Liver for filtering. The multiple and critical roles and functions of the Liver then begin to unfold, and can be supported, as can the health of the rest of the GI tract.

Function of the Large Intestine (LI)

LI functions absorb water, salts and a few nutrients (nearly all absorption of nutrients occurs in the Small Intestine). It is home to countless bacterial microbes which are either beneficial or harmful – overgrowth of harmful bacteria leads to dysbiosis. The bacteria break down complex particles through fermentation as well as breaking down fiber to produce butyrate and other fatty acids that provide energy fuel for cells lining the LI tract.

Colon health

If the bacteria in the colon is out of balance, energy requirements for the cells that line the LI will be insufficient for the cells to stay healthy. The most important food sources of bacteria are lactobacillus acidophilis and bifidobacterium bifidum found in yoghurt, cheese, miso and tempeh (probiotic foods) and probiotic supplements. Furthermore, the cells of the colon require fiber and water to stay healthy, both for energy (from breaking down fiber to produce butyrate and other fatty acids) as well to increase motility of food in the colon. Increased movement and decreased transit time both prevents build-up of harmful bacteria during fermentation and also prevents absorption of toxins (such as those secreted in bile from the liver). If food stagnates, fermentation will increase the presence of harmful bacteria that damage colon cells and also cause cancer.

Nutritional support for digestion and digestive health

  1. Bitters: made from plant and root extracts (such as gentian root) and useful for increasing production of gastric fluids in stomach
  2. Fermented foods: contain bacteria that is beneficial to the health of the Large Intestine. Examples include yoghurt, soy miso, and fermented vegetables such as tempeh and sauerkraut
  3. Digestant teas: Mint, Ginger, Umbelliferae family seeds, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Licorice
  4. Garlic: has anti-biotic and anti-inflammatory properties
  5. Chlorophyll: Green pigment in plants that is either fat-soluble or water soluble. Anti-cancer and anti-oxidant effects. Natural form in plants is fat-soluble and can stimulate red blood cell production (water soluble form often present in shops cannot). Water soluble form is not readily absorbed. Both water soluble and natural chlorophyll have soothing effect on GI tract due largely to astringent qualities: abilities to attract water and also stimulate wound healing. Dietary sources include green leafy vegetables, broccoli, wheat grass juice and algae such as Spirulina and Chlorella
  6. Aloe vera: intestinal purgative that helps stimulate colon activity (without cramping). Useful remedy or preventative for constipation. High anti-oxidant capacity that help protect cell membranes from cancerous free-radical damage

Liver support:

  • Milk thistle: helps protect liver from toxic damage. Milk thistle is traditionally used for liver disorders. This herb contains Silymarin, which is an antioxidant, to help prevent free radical damage in the liver due to toxins. Silymarin also increases the glutathione content of the liver. The most interesting effect of milk thistle in the liver is its ability to stimulate protein synthesis. This results in an increase in the production of new liver cells to replace the damaged old ones.
  • Dandelion: increase bile flow, thus helping liver to detoxify, as well assisting fat digestion. Dandelion root has an extremely high nutrient content, increasing bile flow, improving liver congestion, bile duct inflammation and gallstones.

Mechanical Digestion: function = to increase surface area of food for digestive enzymes and chemicals to work on

  • Chewing in mouth
  • Peristalisis of smooth muscle from esophagus to colon that moves food along the digestive tract
  • Churning action of stomach muscles that break down food into chyme with the consistency of cream

Chemical Digestion: function = to break the bonds between large food molecules to make them small enough for absorption

  • Chemical mixing: Hydrochloric Acid (HCl) produced by stomach breaks down food and activates digestive enzymes as well as killing bacteria
  • Bile: secreted by liver either directly into duodenum or from the gallbladder emulsifies fats, cholesterol and fat soluble vitamins, breaking them into tiny globules with a larger surface area for fat splitting enzymes to act on during digestion
  • Enzymes: secreted by Pancreas and brush border enzymes released by microvilli of small intestine complete the digestion of proteins, carbohydrates and fat
  • Bacteria: living in large intestine ferment and break down food (fiber) and create vitamins in the process; they also produce fatty acids from fiber that provide fuel for intestinal cells of the colon as they absorb water and vitamins in stool

Malabsorption: Results from problems in breaking down food into absorbable molecules and caused by:

  • Stress or activation of sympathetic nervous system that disrupts chemical and mechanical digestion
  • Lack of chemical production of either HCl, enzymes or bile in chemical digestion
  • Lack of sufficient chewing

Incompletely digested foods may cross intestinal lining leading to immune response, in turn causing inflammation and disrupted absorptive function of villi of intestine

Four R’s of digestive health

Removing or restricting – pathogens, allergens and toxins from food intake

  • Allergens (eg gluten)
  • Medication and toxins
  • Bacteria, pathogens, parasites, fungi
  • Oxidative stress
  • Supplements – excessive use, or those that are not bioavailable
  • Processed food products
  • Foods prepared outside home: what is in it? How much is known about ingredients or cooking methods / cleanliness?

Replace or replenishing – digestive enzymes in the pancreas and other digestive factors, such as stomach wall secretions (Gastrin, HCl) and bile secretions

Reinoculate or reintroduce – friendly bacteria, using prebiotics and probiotics

  • Probiotics: e.g. lactobacilli and bifidobacteria (health promoting bacteria present in fermented foods)
  • Prebiotics: Inulin (fiber in Jerusalem artichokes that provide energy fuel for Lower Intestinal cells)

Repair – involving direct nutritional support to intestinal cells via nutrients critical for intestinal wall structure and function

  • L-Glutamine
  • Clean, low irritant diet
  • Adequate protein
  • Anti-oxidants: Vitamins E, C, A, Glutathione
  • Vitamin support: B vitamins, Vit K

Healing Foods

  1. L-glutamine: amino acid that is useful in intestinal repair due its function in providing fuel for rapidly dividing cells (such as those of the mucosal lining of the intestines) and also being a precursor for the anti-oxidant and liver detoxifying Glutathione. In addition, it is the preferred respiratory fuel for GI mucosal cells and immune cells. It also has anti-inflammatory properties and helpful with colitis and Irritable Bowel Syndrome possibly due to lowering levels of interleukins, inflammatory messaging molecules, in the intestines. Present in most foods, but highest in high protein foods especially eggs and whey protein.
  2. Licorice root: anti-inflammatory, anti-arthritic, anti-toxic (ie supporting and protecting the liver), anti-biotic, anti-cancer and laxative. Also softens and soothes intestinal tissues and mucus membranes. Helps with stomach and intestinal problems such as indigestion, nausea, constipation. Licorice also helps protect liver from toxic damage, and helps protect intestinal walls through anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial action
  3. Boswellia: herb that has anti-inflammatory properties as well as being used to treat GI problems.

Adapted from:

Marieb, E.N. (2009). The essentials of human anatomy and physiology. San Francisco, C.A.: Pearson Education

Murray, M. (2001). Total body tune-up. New York, N.Y.: Bantam Press

Murray, M. (2005). Encyclopedia of Healing Food. New York, N.Y.: Atria Books

Murray, M. (1998). The complete book of juicing. Roseville, CA: Prima publishing

Haas, E. (2006). Staying Healthy with Nutrition. Berkeley, Ca. Celestial Healing Arts.

Bland, J., Costarella, L., Levin, B., Liska, D., Lukaczer, D., Schlitz, B., Schmidt, M., Lerman, R., Quinn, S., Jones, D. (2004). Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach, Second Edition. Gig Harbor, WA: The Institute for Functional Medicine.


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