Over an average lifetime, we consume anywhere between 30 to 60 tonnes of food. Just have a think about that for a second. Crazy right?
This means our digestive system has to work very hard to break down food and so it’s very important to look after it. If your digestive health is neglected, the breakdown of food will become less efficient and therefore the body will not receive the nutrients it needs at an optimal level. Furthermore, a poorly functioning digestive system can lead to inflammation, ‘leaky gut syndrome’ and many other factors detrimental to our health.
Whether your goal is to improve your body composition, improve health or optimize performance, your digestive system is one of the most important systems. Here I will provide a very brief overview of the digestive process, how the system becomes damaged by stress, the problems caused by an unhealthy system and finally some advice for repairing and supporting digestive health.
The Digestive System
The digestive process starts as soon as food enters your mouth and finishes when waste leaves the body. Therefore the system is made up of many components including the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine and large intestine. In order to completely break down whole food into usable nutrients, there is a complex chain of physical and chemical processes that take place within all compartments of the digestive system.
The first step in breaking down food into usable nutrients is the physical act of chewing in the mouth. This breaks down food into smaller chunks which makes breakdown in the stomach easier. The saliva in the mouth also contains an amylase that begins the breakdown of carbohydrates.
Once food has been chewed it travels down the oesophagus due to a process called peristalsis, a small rhythmical wave of muscle contractions that pushes food to the stomach.
70% of our immune system is in the stomach and it is our first line of defence against bad bacteria and germs. The job of the stomach is to break down the remaining chunks of food into a liquid called chyme. During this process, any bad bacteria is killed. Food is turned into chyme by a mixture of enzyme activity and stomach contractions. The enzymes that break down food in the stomach can only work in a very acidic environment and therefore cells release hydrochloric acid to assist with food breakdown.
This acid is strong enough to melt through metal, but luckily our body knows this and simultaneously releases a thick mucus that covers the stomach wall and prevents the acid from doing any damage.
Once the stomach has turned food into chyme, the liquid moves into the small intestine. The small intestine is where fats are broken down by a substance called bile. This is also the site where the majority of nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream ready to be delivered to the body’s cells, organs and tissues.
In order to transport nutrients into the bloodstream, the surface of the small intestine is covered in millions of tiny villi. These villi are covered with blood capillaries which allow for the absorption of nutrients into the blood flow.
Any undigested food that is left is then passed to the large intestine, where water is removed and waste is sent to leave the body via the colon and rectum.
So you may wonder how stress has the ability to impact our digestive system and potentially slow down our muscle building efforts?
Well firstly, the stomach is almost like a second brain. It contains millions of neurons and produces chemical messengers exactly like the brain. Think back to the last time you were nervous and had butterflies in your stomach. That’s because there is an emotional response being produced in the stomach by these neurons and messengers. So stress is indeed an emotional response, but this also impacts the stomach.
Now we’ve got a brief understanding of how the system operates, let’s have a look at how stress can damage the digestive system and slow down your progress.
Firstly, in the modern day, it’s easy to become chronically stressed due to the fast paced and high pressured environment we find ourselves in. Chronic stress decreases the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach and therefore impairs the break-down of food.
The issue with this is that unwanted pathogenic bacteria from foods we eat will make their way through to the small intestine and cause some systemic inflammation. An inflamed small intestine means the surface area of the small villi is reduced and therefore the number of nutrients being absorbed into the bloodstream is decreased.
This has huge implications on health, performance and our capabilities to build muscle. Let’s say your goal is to build muscle tissue. In order to do this, you must break down muscle fibres in the gym and then have an adequate supply of new building blocks (amino acids) at the ready in the bloodstream to rebuild the muscle fibers bigger and stronger than before. To do this, you must make sure you are eating an adequate amount of protein from a variety of sources. But if your small intestine is inflamed, your ability to actually absorb the amino acids from the protein you eat will be compromised and your progress will be reduced.
A further problem caused by the decreased production of hydrochloric acid is that the stomach lining also becomes inflamed due to the undigested pathogenic bacteria that sits in the stomach. When the stomach wall becomes inflamed, this increases the permeability of the wall. This means that more substances can pass through the stomach lining, a problem called ‘leaky gut syndrome’ by specialists.
Leaky gut syndrome means that undigested food particles including bacteria that are detrimental to health, can more easily pass through into the bloodstream and lead to many illnesses and conditions. Obviously, health is the most important factor that we want to optimize with nutrition, so this is something that should be addressed.
Looking After your Digestive System
Luckily, there are some nutritional tips and supplementation protocols that can be implemented in order to improve and support your digestive function when stress is high. Here’s what I do on a daily basis to ensure my digestive system functions well.
I start every day with a greens smoothie containing 2 handfuls of spinach leaves, 2 handfuls of kale, 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar (ensure it’s natural and contains the mother), 10g of L-Glutamine powder, ginger, cinnamon, 1 handful of frozen berries and some greek yoghurt.
Alongside my smoothie, I take 2 super strength omega 3 soft gels, a good quality probiotic tablet and a multivitamin. Here’s a summary of why some of these ingredients help support the digestive system.
L glutamine – improves gastrointestinal health as it’s a vital protein needed for the intestine to recover and repair. This is very useful to help keep the small intestine healthy and ensure the nutrients we consume are absorbed into the bloodstream optimally.
Super strength omega 3 softgels – the softgels act as an anti-inflammatory, therefore helping combat the systemic inflammation caused by stress as previously discussed.
Apple cider vinegar – helps create an acidic environment within the stomach and therefore helps combat the negative effects of having unbroken down food in the stomach.
Probiotic – increases the number of good bacteria in the stomach and therefore helps keep bacteria levels balanced.
Multi-vitamin – A good quality multivitamin tablet ensures that your digestive system has all of the essential vitamins it needs to perform the many complex functions needed for the efficient breakdown of food.
The Bottom Line
Our busy world can cause many chronic stress-related problems. Sometimes in less obvious ways than you think. Our digestive function impacts our health, performance and ability to build muscle tissue. However, the impacts of stress on the digestive system can mean that all 3 of these areas suffer. By taking some basic supplements and eating plenty of good food, these detrimental effects of stress can be combated. It’s just a case of ensuring you look after your body even more so than normal during periods when life stress is high.