Sabotage of Poor Digestion and How to Fix It
March 17, 2016
What am I talking about today?
As promised, in Part 2 of this post I am going to walk you through the Sabotage of Poor Digestion and How to Fix It. What happens when your child’s digestive system is dysfunctioning and why does it matter to his/her neurodevelopment recovery? And most important, what you can do about it. If you haven’t checked out part one of this post, you can check it out here.
Signs of Digestive Dysfunction
Before we talk about why digestive dysfunction is so common in our children, take a look at the long list of the signs and symptoms:
- constipation (your child is constipated if he or she doesn’t have 1–3 bowel movements daily, normally right after a meal)
- undigested food in the stool
- light coloured stool that floats
- stools that aren’t properly formed (should look like number 4 of the Bristol Stool Chart
- belly pain (kids usually point to their belly button when they are asked where the pain is)
- posturing (leaning over a table or couch to put pressure on the belly to relieve the pain – often seen in nonverbal children)
- colic (in the first year of life)
- vomiting or reflux in the first year of life
- heartburn/reflux in second year and beyond
- fussy eating habits/picky eater (will only eat a limited variety of foods)
- craving for sugary and/or starchy foods (cereal, bananas, breads, cookies)
- nausea after eating a meal higher in fat
- dislike or lack of interest in proteins (meat)
- dry skin
- muscle cramps
- and more…
The Digestive Cascade and Why It Matters
As I mentioned in Part 1, digestion starts in the brain. To begin the digestive cascade we must be in a relaxed, or parasympathetic, state. Unfortunately, our children are in a chronic state of stress caused by many factors ranging from lack of sleep and emotional stress to inflammation in various parts of the body, gut infections and more. This means that their digestive process starts off on a bad foot—the very first signals their bodies need to prepare to digest food are not received. This misstep ensures some level of digestive dysfunction for our children, although it may not be obvious to us.
I could write an entire book on this subject, but let’s look at what happens to digestion when our child is in a state of chronic stress.
It All Begins in the Brain
Your child is under chronic stress, so when he or she eats, the brain doesn’t tell other parts of the body to be prepared to do their part. Salivary amylase (necessary to digest carbohydrates) won’t be released, and stomach acid production (needed to break down proteins and cleave minerals—more on this in a minute) will be impeded.
If your child is like mine, she barely chews her food. Seriously, sometimes I wonder how the kid who spent years gagging and throwing up almost every meal skipped to inhaling her food! Can you relate?
When your child is not chewing properly (the benchmark is 30 times per bite), salivary amylase, which was low, to begin with, is not sufficiently secreted. This means carbohydrates do not yet begin breaking down, and as a result, they may not get broken down fully as digestion goes on. This matters because undigested carbohydrates feed opportunistic/bad bacteria and yeast (particularly Candida) resulting in imbalances further down in the gut (and sometimes in the mouth in the form of thrush). These imbalances, known as dysbiosis, damage the ecology in the gut, causing chronic inflammation and in turn damage the gut lining. The gut lining relies on a balance of good bacteria to stay healthy, receiving nutrients from the good bacteria as well as a physical reinforcement as the bacteria line up along the intestinal wall.
In addition, dysbiosis and potential gut infections interfere with the breakdown of nutrients and impair the ability of the gut lining to absorb nutrients, leading to key nutrient deficiencies. Last but not least, this process leads to a weakening in the tight junctions in the gut wall (which hold the lining together), creating a “leaky gut” that allows partially digested foods to inappropriately penetrate the gut barrier. Various symptoms are triggered by a leaky gut, from inflamed sore joints and brain fog to autoimmune disease that results from food sensitivities and allergies.
The Stomach—Another Critical Stage
Let’s back up to the stomach.
As I mentioned above, because your child is in a chronic state of stress, the stomach is unlikely to produce sufficient stomach acid, or hydrochloric acid (HCl), which is required to trigger the release of pepsin to break down proteins and to cleave minerals from food. Proteins make up the building blocks of the body and play many roles as enzymes, antibodies, hemoglobin (necessary for oxygen transport throughout the body, most notably in the brain) and hormones, for example. The building blocks of proteins themselves are amino acids. Amino acids are required for RNA and DNA regulation so that genes function properly, and for building neurotransmitters, which are important chemicals that communicate information throughout our brains and body. Next, when there isn’t enough HCl, minerals can’t be cleaved (broken down into usable parts) from food. Minerals are cofactors in vital enzyme reactions, maintain proper nerve conduction and facilitate the transfer of nutrients across cell membranes to name just a few of their many functions.
Many vicious cycles erupt when digestive function is disrupted. Take the mineral zinc for example. Zinc is needed to produce HCl, but when there isn’t enough HCl then zinc won’t be cleaved from the food it is bound to, and so won’t be absorbed by the body!
HCl is also the first line of defense against pathogens in our foods. We often mistake food poisoning for the stomach flu because only one person who ate the food gets sick. Stomach acid and pepsin must be present in appropriate levels to kill and “digest” unwanted pathogens (bacteria, parasites, yeasts and viruses). If your child has insufficient HCl levels and experiences stomach flu-like symptoms, it may be from pathogens in the food.
Downstream Effects of Low Stomach Acid (HCl)
As if that isn’t bad enough, insufficient stomach acid (HCl) causes more trouble as we move down the digestive tract. (The ideal pH range of gastric juices is 1.5–3.0.) At the end of the stomach is a band of smooth muscle known as the pyloric sphincter, which controls the release of food from the stomach into the small intestine. When there is not enough HCl in the stomach, the pyloric sphincter doesn’t open properly, so food and acid in the stomach reflux up the esophagus instead. Yup, you heard me right—it’s actually insufficient levels of stomach acid that result in acid reflux in the vast majority of scenarios, contradictory to what you might have learned.
When the food does eventually empty from the stomach into the duodenum (upper part of the small intestine), if it’s pH isn’t low enough (not acidic enough), it won’t trigger the release of pancreatic juices. Pancreatic juices contain digestive enzymes (required to further break down food for proper absorption) and sodium bicarbonate (which brings the acidity of the food down considerably so that it won’t burn the mucosal lining and lead to duodenal ulcers or inhibit beneficial bacteria in the intestines). In addition, the release of the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK) won’t occur when stomach acidity is not high enough. CCK stimulates the gallbladder to squeeze out bile needed to emulsify (break down) fats. When fats are not emulsified, they remain only partially digested and go rancid in the gut. When fats are not properly digested and absorbed, other fat-soluble nutrients (like vitamins A, D, K and E, and omega-3 fatty acids) are not absorbed. Fats are needed in the body for a healthy inflammatory response, cell membrane integrity and for the proper function of many organs, including the brain.
Lastly, without the release of bile from the gallbladder, the small intestines won’t contract to move the “food” further down (a process known as peristalsis). This lack of motility can lead to chronic constipation. When our children have chronic constipation, they aren’t moving waste materials out of their bodies, which means that toxic waste materials can then be reabsorbed and cause many different health symptoms.
It’s easy to see that as each break in the digestive chain occurs, starting with our children’s brains and moving south, the effects are compounded. No wonder our children are suffering so.
This scenario doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture, but it’s real and it happens with many of our children. The variables will be different with every child. It depends on what aspect of digestion breaks down first and how the symptoms manifest. They may be obviously digestive or nutrient deficiencies or they may appear as a host of other symptoms that are not directly associated with food and digestion (like brain fog from a food intolerance). The key is to know how to look for the signs and symptoms of where the digestive cascade is broken to determine where interventions are necessary to correct it.
Sabotage of Poor Digestion and How to Fix It
Now that you see how the Sabotage of Poor Digestion and How to Fix It, you will be able to better identify with your practitioner when and what kind of digestive support your child might need. In addition to the steps below, which you will remember from Part 1, download the Digestion Cheat Sheet to help with your review and detective work.
- Start a food, mood, sleep and poop journal. Oh joy! This is the starting point of the medical detective work necessary to gain clarity and insight about the root causes of your child’s challenges. I really can’t stress enough how observing and documenting these areas can help you discover many opportunities for healing. The more information you and your practitioners are armed with, the better choices you can make about how to help your child. I have created a free handy dandy Food Journal for you to get started with. Grab it here.
- When using the journal be sure to document the quality of the poop. This can be done by referring to the Bristol Stool Chart. (Trust me, the right practitioner will thank you for it.)
- Observe and document your child’s autonomic nervous system state. Do you think s/he is in a parasympathetic “rest and digest” state or sympathetic “fight or flight” state when you sit down to each meal.
- Review your journal at the end of every week. You will likely begin to see some obvious links between your child’s symptoms (digestive and otherwise). Pay attention to the patterns.
- Take your journal and your observations to your next visit with your practitioner. Good health practitioners are often very experienced at spotting the trends and can help you narrow down possible causes of symptoms.
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