Chewing and digesive enzymes
Chewing food well in the mouth is vital to generate saliva, which in turn stimulates the production of digestive enzymes in the stomach. Levels of digestive enzymes may be lowered as a result of taking the contraceptive pill or other medication, poor eating habits or ageing. They can be boosted naturally by consuming enzyme-rich foods, such as papaya or pineapple, or by taking a digestive enzyme supplement before each meal.
Liver and gall bladder function
The liver stores fats, sugars and protein and produces bile, which is stored in the gall bladder and aids digestion, especially the breaking down of fats. Regular exercise, diaphragmatic breathing and daily intake of leafy greens and wholegrains – rich in B vitamins and minerals, vitamin C (see A to Z of remedies for food sources and RDAs) and essential fatty acids – all help healthy liver and gall bladder function.
Losing weight if overweight, taking regular meals – especially breakfast – and limiting intake of fatty, sugary foods also helps. The herbs dandelion and milk thistle are also effective liver tonics.
The pancreas produces digestive enzymes to aid the breakdown of fats, as well as the hormone insulin, which helps to regulate blood sugar levels. For healthy pancreatic function it’s best to avoid excessive consumption of sweets, biscuits, cakes and other sweet foods, refined carbohydrates and alcohol. You should also not smoke and avoid very fatty foods. Eat little and often and ensure adequate intake of vitamins A, C and D and the minerals chromium, selenium and zinc.
Foods are broken down into fats, proteins and carbohydrates in the small intestine. They’re then absorbed along with their nutrients into the bloodstream.
In the large intestine water is absorbed from the food. The waste products are then passed into the rectum as faeces.
Healthy intestinal function relates to adequate roughage, essential fatty acids and adequate water in the diet, as well as a good balance of digestive enzymes and intestinal bacteria and regular bowel movements. Good eating habits and a daily intake of fresh vegetables, fruit and wholegrains help intestinal function, as do regular exercise, diaphragmatic breathing, relaxation and stress management.
The balance of intestinal bacteria may be upset by poor diet, stress or the intake of antibiotics or other medication. Under such conditions the fungal organism candida albicans may thrive, causing symptoms of bloating, wind, discharge, fatigue and mood swings. To prevent the spread of candida, eat live yoghurt or take a probiotic supplement containing lactobacillus acidophilus and bifido bacteria. These so-called ‘friendly’ bacteria are essential for healthy bowel function.
Aloe vera juice and the amino acid l-glutamine help to heal the lining of the intestines, while linseed oil, psyllium husks, chicory and slippery elm can help to maintain regular bowel movements. Food intolerances can cause inflammation of the intestinal walls and it may be worth testing for them.
Naturopaths recommend following a cleansing programme, or short fast, a couple of times a year, preferably in spring and in autumn, to cleanse and strengthen the digestive system. Please check with a qualified practitioner for further advice.
This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Stephen Hopwood in April 2009.