Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Digestion – the Performance Core

By: Anne Guzman, PCG Nutritionist

We seem to believe that we can eat anything and our digestive tracts can tolerate anything and magically we will remain in excellent health. However, this is not reality. A lot of the disease that exists today, in my opinion, is related to poor nutrition and poor digestion. Every positive nutritional choice that we make helps us to create healthy and strong cells in the body, enabling us to live without illness. 

By fueling the body with foods closest to their natural state such as foods from the ocean and trees or plants grown in nutrient rich soils, we are keeping as close as possible to eating foods in the state that nature intended; whole foods with “life force”. Eating whole foods will lead to healthier digestion and as you will see below, digestion is the root to good health. 

As athletes we expend a lot of excess energy during training. In turn we also need to consume more calories than the average person in order to replenish our glycogen stores, repair damaged muscles, nourish the body and maintain general health. This means our digestive tracts are put under more stress. It is especially important that athletes have a strong digestive system to break down this food so that we can absorb its nutrients within the body. Think about your digestive tract as your foundation. Build your house on a strong foundation. Otherwise when you put a lot of stress on it, it can crumble. Let’s take a look at what can break down and build up our digestive tracts so that we can begin to pay more attention to our own and be sure we are building our health as athletes on strong foundations. 

The Digestive Tract
Digestion begins in the mouth the moment when we begin to chew our food. Carbohydrates can be completely digested in the mouth by the enzyme amylase found in the saliva. (Don’t forget to CHEW your food!! Slow down. YOUR STOMACH HAS NO TEETH!) Once you swallow your food it moves through a long tube called the esophagus, then passes into the stomach where digestion continues via stomach acids and digestive juices which work to break down proteins. Stomach acid serves many important functions including aiding in mineral absorption (including iron), killing bacteria and parasites as well as stimulating the small intestine to prepare for further stages of digestion. 

From the stomach, food passes into the small intestine, at which point it is further broken down by bile, which emulsifies fats. Additional enzymes secreted by the pancreas work on proteins, fats and carbohydrate digestion. Those of us who choose to eat quickly and not chew our food properly and choose to eat a diet high in processed foods are putting excess stress on the pancreas to excrete enzymes into the small intestine. The reason: carbohydrates arriving in the small intestine are less digested when not chewed properly in the mouth. Furthermore, processed foods, lacking enzymes, do not support the digestive process as they do not deposit enzymes into the body. Choosing to eat healthy wholesome foods for your “daily meals” (I am not referring to PERFORMANCE NUTRITION such as on bike, pre and post ride nutrition which are purposely processed as this serves a specific need) adds live enzymes into the digestive tract to support digestion. Shop the perimeter! That’s where the whole foods are!

The Power of Enzymes
Let’s take a closer look at why enzymes are so crucial to digestion and absorption of nutrients from food. Enzymes such as those in the mouth are basically essential to our existence. They are the key to good digestion. Enzymes are active chemicals in the digestive juices which cause the chemical breakdown of whole foods. They are capable of inducing chemical changes in other substances. Virtually nothing happens in the body without the help of enzymes. 

When the body is not able to accumulate or produce enough enzymes to do these tasks, imbalances can occur and may result in various illnesses. Enzymes work in a ‘lock and key’ mechanism. For example specific enzymes work only to break down carbohydrates, while others work solely on proteins and others on fats. There are also enzymes such as lactase that are specific to breaking down lactose, the sugar found in milk. Many children and moreso adults are deficient in this enzyme and are intolerant to milk as a result. Enzymes also help to detoxify the blood and the liver as well as fight inflammation and many other functions not mentioned here. 

When it comes to diet, whole (live) natural foods contain enzymes, unlike their “dead” processed counterparts. Many enzymes are destroyed when whole foods have been overly heated. Raw, whole foods provide the surest way to consume live enzymes. Examples are foods such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, legumes nuts and seeds and animal proteins. There are also some concentrated powdered versions of digestive enzymes available today which can be supplemented to aid with digestion. I believe that most athletes can benefit from taking a full spectrum plant digestive enzyme purchased from a company that does not process any pro-hormones/hormones or illegal supplements at all in their supplement line and factory.

It isn’t only our physical body that is affected by enzymes. Our mental well-being is also affected. Very important chemicals in human body that rely partially on proper digestion are the brain's neurotransmitters. Brain chemicals called neurotransmitters (e.g. serotonin) are responsible for regulating brain function and for sending messages from nerve to nerve internal and external to the brain. They are responsible for sending messages from the nerves to every muscle and organ within the body. Thus, neurotransmission affects the overall functioning of the body, including mood, pain, hormone regulation, metabolism, and digestion. “Food affects your mood!” As athletes mental health is important to our success and resilience.

Eating “Good” Foods
Most of us have been eating processed foods for years, robbing the body of much needed enzymes and nutrition. Other ways we have damaged our digestive systems over time include doses of antibiotics which kill much needed gut bacteria or intestinal flora which is found in our colon, the lower part of our digestive tracts. This intestinal flora produces important vitamins K (for blood clotting), B12, thiamine and riboflavin. This flora also makes up a large portion of the “bulk” of our stools which can be a factor in preventing constipation, as well as supporting our immune system. Both are crucial to good performance and health in athletes. Once you destroy this “good bacteria” you must replace it. 

Other means of stressing the digestive system including overeating and taking antacids affecting our stomach’s high acidity. Products like Zantac or antacids that indirectly or directly reduce stomach acid, cause more issues in the long run. As we noted earlier stomach acid serves an important role in digestion. The proper approach is to strengthen the digestive tract rather than continuing to smother the side effects of poor diet and a weak digestive system with drugs.

Basically, as a society we have simply thrown a lot of garbage down the hatch, not realizing how it would affect our health. Then we have remedied any side effect and have essentially “hardened” our stomachs. We tend to assume that it is “normal” to feel like garbage. No it is not! We are paying the price. At this point many of our digestive tracts are like those little flickers left in fires that need to be carefully fueled or they will go out. We are paying the price with allergies to a variety of foods, stomach aches, constipation and many diseases related to poor digestion ranging from arthritis, eczema and gallbladder issues to name but a few. 

For the most part, disease can be related back to the digestive system. Poor digestion = poor nutrient absorption. What we need to do is slowly build the strength of our digestive tract and turn that little flicker into a giant flame! Once your digestive tract has the vitality of a bonfire you can afford to throw a big log in it once in a while. It will be strong enough to handle a wider variety of foods than the weakened version may currently be. You will have more energy and be much less toxic inside with regular elimination. If you find yourself with a more and more limited diet and a list of ailments that seems to keep growing, it’s time to start building up your fire, bit by bit. It’s time to light your core on fire!

Here are some simple things you can start with:
• Add more whole and vital foods to your body and increase the amount of digestive enzymes and nutrients in your body. Make “deposits” into your bank.

• Remove as many processed packaged foods as possible from your daily nutrition regimen.

• Have a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar before a meal with meat or protein to aid digestion

• Chew your food until it is a paste in your mouth to digest carbohydrates and create greater surface area for digestion of other macronutrients.

• Don’t drink with meals and dilute digestive juices, wait 20 min on each end if possible. If you are eating slowly you won’t need a glass of water to wash it down.

• Supplement with a full spectrum plant digestive enzyme before meals

• If possible start your day with a drink that will stimulate digestive juices and wait a little while to eat to allow the juices to scavenge the blood and help digest “debris” and toxins. The “master cleanse” drink can help. It is made of purified water, fresh lemon juice, pure maple syrup and cayenne pepper. Fresh ginger can be added. Allow the stomach to sit empty on these mornings if it can fit into your training plan. This can be a nice rest for the digestive tract.

Everything we eat goes into our core to be broken down, digested and absorbed. The stronger our digestive foundation, the more we reap from our good nutrition. Begin to visualize your digestive tract as that fire in the pit of your belly. Start to build it up strong like a ball of fire sending its powerful nutrients out like long rays, reaching every last cell in every inch of your body. Every choice you make affects your performance both mentally and physically as an athlete. Start to make the connections more and more with the foods you eat and how they can affect the power that flows through your body to create a new level of power for 2012!

This article has been reprinted from Pez Cycling News Online.  Anne Guzman is a regular contributor to Pez Cycling News Online.