Digestion begins with the engagement of the senses. Take a deep breath smell, see, touch and listen to the food you are preparing in anticipation of the delight of the taste to come. Fine slices of fennel cooked for a few seconds in olive oil, the first crunch releases the sweet aniseed flavour. The incredible aroma of a round, shiny, smooth, red tomato picked warm from the plant, eaten sprinkled with salt, pepper, basil and olive oil an explosion of flavour in your mouth. The texture and fragrance of mashed potato, succulent, soft and comforting. The enlivening smell from a slice of lemon, astringent and sour as you suck the juice. The sensuous fragrance of freshly harvested Summer strawberries or the aroma of earthy mushrooms gathered from the floor of the woods, sizzling in a pan with sweet red onion and pungent garlic. Just thinking about food will bring saliva flowing into your mouth.
The magical transformation of food into our bodies begins in the mouth as we grind, crunch & munch what we are eating. The tongue moves the food about mixing it with saliva which is secreted into your mouth via the salivary glands. As you chew saliva helps to break down the food, moistening it and making it easier to swallow. Amylase, an important digestive enzyme in the saliva, begins the first important step of breaking down carbohydrates into simple sugars. Saliva also contains antibodies that fight bacteria. When the food is well masticated it is swallowed down the oesophagus and into the stomach. The pleasure from tasting will have sent messages to the rest of our digestive system and before the food reaches the stomach gastric juices are flowing.
The muscles of the stomach churn and mash the food mixing it around with the gastric juice. This highly acidic environment is ideal for breaking down the protein element in your food. Different foods take a different length of time to move through the stomach into the small intestine but an average meal containing carbohydrates, protein & fats takes up to six hours. Once in the small intestine the contents of the stomach, now known as chyme, are mixed with pancreatic juice, bile and intestinal juice facilitating further breakdown of the food into simple molecules ready for absorption.
The moist tissue, known as mucosa, that lines the walls of the small intestine contains many folds that are covered with tiny finger like projections called villi and covering them are epithelial cells and each of these is covered with micro villi. These structures create a vast surface area through which nutrients can be absorbed, roughly 250 sq. metres, about the size of a tennis court. Carbohydrates, proteins and fats, all broken down into simple molecules, together with vitamins and minerals pass through the intestinal mucosa into the blood or lymph using a variety of transport mechanisms. Food waste enters the large intestine through a one way valve and ends its journey between twelve & twenty four hours later when it is eliminated.
There are many different elements that effect the way the digestive system works. If you have a compromised digestion key factors to consider are; the food you eat, how much you relax, how much exercise you have and how you handle stress. Maintaining the integrity of our digestive system so that it is able to work harmoniously to break down and absorb nutrients is essential for vibrant health.
Central to good digestion and absorption is the right gut microbiota. The gut is sterile up until we leave the womb, but as the baby passes through the birth canal a host of beneficial bacterial micro-organisms enter into the baby through its mouth. From there they rapidly make their way into the intestinal tract where where they establish themselves in large colonies.
Mothers milk contains just the right ingredients to nourish these beneficial bacteria that have established themselves in the intestines. Babies born by C-section will be exposed to different bacteria than a vaginal birth; these babies will pick up their first microbes from the skin of other people and the environment and formula fed babies will attract different species of bacteria to a breast fed baby. From the very beginning our immune system is shaped by our gut microbiota. A recent study has shown that the foods you choose to eat makes a big difference to the microbes living in your gut and a change in diet can alter the make up of the gut microbiota in just a few days. It is possible if you travel a lot that the gut micro-biota are in a state of constant change and this can be one of the causes of travel constipation.
Far more than just a bio-chemical process digestion is highly influenced by our emotional state. To appreciate the impact of emotions on the gut, it is helpful to understand that we have two brains. One is located in the head the other in the lining of the gut. Both brains develop in the foetal stage from the neural crest, one turns into the central nervous system, or the brain and spinal cord, the other develops into the enteric nervous system or the gut brain. The two brains linked by the vagus nerve are so tightly connected that they are often referred to as as one entity the gut-brain axis. Emotions cause cells from the brains limbic system to release neuropeptides into the blood stream. Within the blink of an eye every cell in your body responds to that emotion. Positive thoughts and feelings induce healthy, physiological reactions, whereas negative ones create detrimental shifts, these changes are especially noticeable and measurable in our digestion system.
Three Spring recipes
Wild garlic grissini
For the sponge:
5oz (150g) white flour
4 fl oz (120ml) warm water
¾oz (20g) yeast
For the dough:
12oz (350g) wholemeal spelt flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
16 leaves wild garlic very finely shredded
4 tablespoons olive oil
water to mix.
Mix the ingredients for the ferment and leave in a warm place covered for 1 hour.
Combine the dough ingredients in a bowl and stir in the ferment and enough water to make a soft pliable dough, leave covered in the bowl for ten minutes. Lightly oil a work surface and gently knead the dough for 1 minute. Return to the cleaned and lightly oiled bowl and leave for ten minutes, repeat this process twice, then leave covered in the bowl for 1 hour.
Heat the oven 375F 190C gas no 5. Lightly flour a table and roll the dough out into a large rectangle about 8” wide, cut thin strips across the width of the dough, then roll and elongate each strip to 12”, place on an oiled baking tray and bake for about ½ hour until golden brown, remove from the oven and cool on a rack.
Sprouted seed salad
3 oz (75g) sprouted sunflower seeds
3 oz (75g) sprouted lentils
2 oz (50g) sprouted alfalfa
2 oz (50g) sprouted wheat
3 dried tomatoes finely shredded
12 almonds, soaked and sliced finely
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
1 clove garlic crushed
2 teaspoons fresh ginger
2 teaspoons tamari
2 tablespoons olive oil
In a bowl combine the sprouted seeds, dried tomatoes and almonds. Whisk the remaining ingredients together, and gently mix into the sprouted seeds. Pile into 6 bowls and serve with wild garlic grissini or linseed crackers
Spring tonic vinegar
6 yarrow leaves
6 dandelion leaves
handful of nettles
4 lovage leaves
apple cider vinegar (raw)
Put the yarrow leaves and dandelion leaves into a sterilised 1/2 litre jar. Chop the nettles, lovage and chervil and add to the jar. Pour the apple cider vinegar over the herbs to fill the jar. Cover tightly and allow to extract for 2 weeks in a cool dark place. After 2 weeks strain the herbs through a cheesecloth and put the strained liquid into a clean bottle and cap tightly.
Herbs infused in apple cider vinegar combines the healing properties of the vinegar with the healing essence and rich mineral content of herbs. Take one tablespoon in warm water on rising as a general tonic.