“You are what you eat” is a popular saying in nutrition circles. It’s largely correct in the sense that what we eat has a huge impact on our health. But it’s not completely true — more accurately, you are what you digest and absorb.
Why do I make this distinction? So many of us have faulty digestion, starting at the stomach. Many of the foods we eat are simply not digested well, and therefore cannot be absorbed and used by the body.
Our stomachs produce hydrochloric acid, which is necessary for digestion, especially for proteins, calcium and iron. When the stomach is done with its work, its contents are extremely acidic. The inside of the stomach should be about 100,000 times more acidic than the food was when first eaten, a change in pH (a measure of acidity) from seven to two. The stomach also makes mucus, and has other means to protect its lining from this intense acidity.
But these protective mechanisms in the stomach are among the first things we lose when we are under stress. This was shown by Dr. Hans Selye, who studied the responses of small animals to different types of stressors. Among the first changes in the stressed animals were ulcers in the stomach and upper intestines, along with swelling of the adrenal glands (which make stress hormones) and shrinkage of the thymus gland, responsible for the immune response. The body’s automatic “fight or flight” response increases blood supply to the muscles and heart at the expense of the digestive tract. It is thought that this is why the stomach is one of the first organs to pay the price for stress.
Another change in stomach function with chronic stress is the exact opposite of what we are told happens. When stressed, the acid production of the stomach actually goes down. This doesn’t jive well with the ads for heartburn meds that claim to reduce “excess acid” in the stomach. The problem is, there is no excess acid. The reason these drugs make you feel better is because any acid production can cause pain, once the lining of the stomach is inflamed.
Ironically, long-term reduced acid production can actually cause heartburn. If the contents of the stomach are not digested thoroughly (due to a lack of stomach acid), the stomach will retain the food for a much longer period of time, causing irritation to the lining of the stomach. This can lead to more heartburn, as well as reflux, since the valve at the top of the stomach is also stressed. The incompletely digested food leads to digestive problems further down the gastrointestinal tract. Since stomach acid is necessary to digest proteins, calcium, and iron, it is not a surprise that prolonged use of drugs to reduce stomach acid production can lead to osteoporosis and other deficiencies of these nutrients.
Sometimes this cycle is started by a simple food sensitivity; many patients report heartburn relief when they stop eating wheat or dairy. Any treatment that reduces stress on the body is helpful, especially acupuncture, spinal manipulation and massage. Once the stomach is less inflamed, the next treatment involves giving a supplement that actually increases acidity of the stomach, supporting its normal digestive function, so you really do digest what you eat.
Next week I’ll cover how our diets interfere with gallbladder function.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at email@example.com.