Spotlight on Digestion

Spotlight on Digestion

Ever thought about what happens when you eat a meal?

You probably don’t give it a seconds thought, although you don’t really have to because it works automatically.

The only time we tend to think about our digestion and gut health is when it’s not working and then by golly does it let us know.

Bloating, gas, indigestion, reflux, stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhoea and constipation are typical examples of a digestive system that is out of sorts.

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So what really goes on inside you when you eat an average roast dinner for instance?

It’s pretty amazing how that big plateful of meat, vegetables and potatoes ends up as microscopic molecules that that get right into your cells to keep them fully functioning and basically allow you to live!

The key to the success of this intricate and complex process is a whole host of digestive enzymes, beneficial bacteria and a healthy intestinal lining which ensures absorption of all the vital nutrients.

Your digestive tract is essentially a great big long tube from mouth to anus, which starts to work as soon as you smell and taste food - triggering your brain to release hormones and enzymes that start working on the food.

Your body provides a broad spectrum of enzymes – these biological catalysts each have a specific role to break down starch, fats, proteins and sugars. The purpose of which is to provides your cells with essential nutrients, including: water, the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate and fat), and the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). 

Vitamins and minerals are already small enough molecules to be absorbed so don’t need breaking down.



The mechanics of digesting your roast dinner start in your mouth where saliva mixes with the digestive enzyme amylase and gets to work on the potatoes and veg first, breaking down the long carbohydrate molecules into smaller chains of starch, known as dextrins. 

open wide woman eating big burger

To feel this in action - try chewing a piece of bread until it turns to mush. During this process the amylase will gradually digest the starch into smaller glucose molecules. Once it reaches that stage you will notice how sweet it tastes.



The action of swallowing moves food down the oesophagus and delivers it to your stomach where protein digestion occurs with the help of hydrochloric acid (HCL) and pepsin which is activated by HCL. Pepsin breaks the protein into smaller chains of amino acids known as peptides.

Food is mixed together with these gastric juices by the churning of the stomach. The acidic environment of the stomach not only facilitates the breakdown of proteins it also helps to kill off any nasty bacteria. 


Lack of optimal HCL secretion, which is a common problem, is known to create gastric disturbances.

Once food is passed into the stomach it is kept there by a band of muscle called a ‘sphincter’ which snaps shut preventing the food from pushing back up the oesophagus. If this happens it can be extremely painful due to the mixture of stomach acid and food.

If the sphincter muscle isn’t working properly it can cause the condition known as heartburn.

The stomach lining itself is protected from the HCL by glands that secrete water, mucous and bicarbonate. Long term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as aspirin and ibuprofen can reduce the body’s production of hormones that secrete mucous and substances that neutralise stomach acid.

This can eventually lead to inflammation and the development of ulcers.

When talking about digestion in the stomach it is important to mention that it also secretes ‘intrinsic factor’ a substance that attaches itself to vitamin B12 allowing it to be absorbed. Vitamin B12 is bound to proteins in food and can only be released when food is broken down in the stomach by HCL and pepsin. So it’s clear to see how important HCL and enzymes are for optimal digestion and absorption of nutrients.

Unfortunately ageing impairs the production of acid and the enzymes needed to break down food as well as the production of intrinsic factor.

Additionally the long term use of drugs that supress acid production in the stomach can create problems. This type of medication is commonly prescribed to the elderly population who often have problems digesting their food, which can lead to a range of health issues.

READ: Fill up on Fibre and Live Longer



The small intestine plays an important role in breaking food down for energy. Muscular contractions in the walls of the intestines mix foods with pancreatic enzymes so that they can break down fat and proteins as well as continue to break down carbohydrates.


Once the molecules are reduced in size, peptidase and saccharidase - enzymes secreted from the microvilli (surface of folds in the intestinal lining) - complete the breakdown of proteins and starches. Vitamins, minerals and water are also mostly absorbed in the small intestine. The absorption of these vital nutrients into the body is dependent on the health of the intestinal lining.

Secretions of mucous provides the perfect environment for colonies of beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, which maintain the health of the intestinal lining as well as support immune function.



The colon reabsorbs water, converts food into faeces, absorbs essential vitamins and excretes waste products from your body. The eliminated stool consists mainly of food debris and bacteria. As well as synthesising various vitamins the gut bacteria also protect against harmful bacteria and process waste products and food particles.



Many factors can contribute to a poorly functioning digestive system. Most commonly:

  1. A poor diet
  2. Stress
  3. Insufficient stomach acid
  4. Low production of digestive enzymes
  5. Parasites
  6. Viruses
  7. Bacterial infection (H Pylori)
  8. Yeasts/fungal infections  (candida)
  9. H Pylori
  10. Alcohol
  11. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS)

Symptoms like wind, bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, indigestion, stomach cramps, belching and flatulence are a sure sign that your digestive system is under par.

Ongoing symptoms such as these may reflect a damaged and inflamed intestinal lining. Once inflammation has set in, the intestinal mucosal barrier is weakened and tiny gaps develop between the cells – resulting in a leaky gut.

Normally undesirable organisms and undigested foods are strictly declined entry into the body, but these gaps allow for easy access leaving your body vulnerable to toxins, food chemicals, food antigens, pesticide residues, bacteria, yeasts, parasites, viruses etc.

As well as this the presence of unknown food particles is perceived as foreign material which prompts the body to launch an immune attack – and very often this is how food sensitivity/intolerance reactions become established.

Where there is a damaged intestine there is also a greater risk of malabsorption of nutrients which can lead to a lack of energy and in some cases may even result in chronic fatigue.



Although your body is very adept at manufacturing enzymes to digest carbohydrates, protein and fat, sometimes it may not produce enough. This can happen for a number of reasons, sometimes it is due to ageing, if the body is challenged through ill health and stress or if you have a poor diet, lacking in the vitamins and minerals needed to make enough enzymes. Often supplementing with ready-made digestive enzymes is all that’s needed to support healthy digestion.

healthy digestion.

Enzymes are basically specialised proteins that convert molecules from one form to another.

They are able to speed up metabolic processes and chemical reactions in the body without getting used up in the process.

Digestive enzymes are what the body uses to break food down into nutrients that can be used to fuel the body and repair and maintain physical structure and function.

Vegetables, fruit and herbs all contain enzymes that facilitate their digestion.

For example a pear will have all the necessary enzymes that your body needs to utilise its nutrients. However if the pear was grown in nutrient poor soil, its enzyme content may be inadequate. Raw fruit and vegetables are the best source of enzymes, once cooked our bodies produce the enzymes needed to digest them.

While all raw foods contain digestive enzymes, some have specific targets.

Protein digestion can be aided by the proteolytic enzymes found in fruits like papaya and pineapple whereas other plants contain lipase enzymes that break down fats and some vegetables and fruits have enzymes that are more efficient at digesting carbohydrates.

Sadly modern intensive farming methods have gradually depleted the amount of nutrients in the soil our food is grown in. From this point of view most people could benefit from an enzyme supplement to guarantee optimum absorption of the nutrients you need.



Before you rush out to purchase a digestive aid it pays to know what enzymes you need and what to look out for.

Each type of food requires a specific enzyme for complete digestion and absorption so it may be best to get a formula that covers all bases.

If you’re unsure it’s always best to consult a health practitioner first.


Table of enzymes


Helps to Digest


Carbohydrates in legumes that cause flatulence




Cellulose (fibre) in fruits, vegetables, grains, and seeds


Maltose, the sugar in grains


Sucrose (table sugar)


Lactose (milk sugar)



Malt diastase





Casein (in milk) and gluten (in grains)


Components of plant cell walls (fibre)


Tannic acid


Additional Supplements to Support Digestion


Low Stomach Acid

Betaine helps to correct low stomach acid levels which may relieve heartburn, bloating and indigestion. It can also make sure that protein digestion is initiated, helping to prevent food allergies.



Cats Claw is a traditional medicinal herb known to have soothing anti-inflammatory properties which are particularly beneficial for intestinal health, food allergies and infections.

Fish Oil or Flax Oil – supplementing with one of these products can provide the body with a source of omega-3 essential fatty acids, which the body converts into prostaglandins. These that are believed to act like localised hormones capable of reducing intestinal inflammation.

Ginkgo biloba this herb may prevent damage to the intestinal mucosa by providing a protective anti-inflammatory action.



L-Glutamine is an amino acid which can be used by the intestinal mucosa cells as a fuel supply. Meeting energy demands for the rapid cell turnover for growth and repair of the mucosa.

Gamma Oryzanol is a substance found in brown rice, known to be protective to the intestinal mucosa.

Chlorella is a blue green algae often called a superfood because of its abundant levels of amino acids, vitamins, trace minerals and RNA and DNA, all of which are necessary for cellular healing process.

Aloe Vera contains ‘mucopolysaccharides’ which are recognised for their healing anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties - helping to promote healthy mucus secretions in the intestines. Not only does this restore the protective coating it maintains the ideal environment to encourage proliferation of friendly bacteria.


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Jacqueline Newson BSc (Hons) Nutritional Therapy

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  1. The Gremlins in Your Gut
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  3. Good Health Starts in the Gut
  4. Study: Gluten-Free Diet Influences Gut Health
  5. Your Gut: The Centre of Your Health
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  8. Highlights: Spotlight on Digestion


  • * Festen HP. Intrinsic factor secretion and cobalamin absorption. Physiology and pathophysiology in the gastrointestinal tract. Scand J Gastroenterol Suppl. 1991; 188:1-7.
  • * Kreutle S & Toohey L (1999). Nutritional Physiology : Clinical Applications and Scientific Research. HealthQuest Publishing: UK.
  • * Pubmed Health. Gastritis: How can you prevent peptic ulcers caused by painkillers?[ accessed 30.3.18].
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