Surviving the Holidays with Health and Happiness

The holidays, they are upon us! Thoughts of the holidays conjure up images of cool days and relaxing in front of a fire with your hands wrapped around a warm mug of something delicious. Joyful time spent with family and friends gathered around the dinner table and, for most of us at least, FOOD. Holiday food brings on ALL the warm fuzzies, with its memories of Grandma’s cheese biscuits and English trifle, Mom’s stuffing and shortbread and Dad’s famous caramel popcorn and nuts and bolts mix. As I set about planning my holiday menu this year, I thought back to the holidays of my childhood. Why does food figure so prominently? Why do I desire these foods at this time of year? And why do we now feel so much guilt associated with indulging in holiday treats? Two possible reasons came to mind. Firstly, for me, all my holiday food memories centre around something that was made, by hand and with love, by someone very dear to me. So is it the food that I feel a connection to or the memories of times spent with these loved ones? The answer seems pretty clear. Don’t get me wrong, if I could wrap my greedy fingers around one of Grandma’s cheese biscuits (gluten and all!)  – fresh out of the oven and slathered in butter – I would! Sure, I could make them myself, but I won’t. It wouldn’t be the same, they wouldn’t be Grandma’s. I don’t need the food to sit and reminisce about all the great memories I have of past Christmases spent with loved ones. Secondly, back in the day, the excess of yummy, but not so good for you, food was the EXCEPTION to the rule. It was truly a special occasion treat. Only at the holidays did we have baking trays and little bowls of nibbles, boxes of chocolate that you would hunt through to find your favourite before your kid sister could nab it. Today, excess is all around us, and holiday treats have become available and consumed year round. They are no longer seasonal treats, but everyday occurrences and we are paying the price for this year round indulgence.

When we are trying to make healthier decisions and eat food that is nourishing for our bodies, navigating the holiday season and its endless parties, dinners and temptations can be stressful. How do you handle it? Do you avoid social gatherings as much as possible? If you do go out, do you only eat off the veggie tray? Do you throw in the towel and just start over in January with everyone else? Hopefully, none of the above!! I’ve compiled a list of tips to help you approach the holidays with a sense of excitement, enjoy the time with loved ones and get out the other side unscathed.

Happier, Healthier Holiday Tips

  • Prioritize Sleep – Even with ALL the stuff that needs doing around the holidays, keeping to a schedule and getting 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep a night is imperative. Lack of sleep can leave us feeling sluggish and more apt to overload on food and sugary treats as we seek out a boost of energy.
  • Don’t Skip Meals – Although it may seem logical to “bank” some calories before you head out to a holiday gathering, all it really accomplishes is making you cranky, over-hungry and on the rails of that dreaded blood sugar roller coaster.  Don’t do it!!  Instead…try this…
  • Eat Before You Go – Pre-party with a nourishing snack before you head out. Getting some good quality protein and healthy fats in before you head out will not only ensure that you have provided your body with some nutrients, but will keep you from succumbing to the temptations of the goodie platters later on. 
  • Skip the High Calorie Bevvies – Alcohol has no nutritional value, is dehydrating, stresses the liver and awakens the craving monster! The mixers used in most cocktails are usually laden with sugar, colouring and other nasty ingredients. If you choose to imbibe, opt for mixers like sparkling water with lime or lemon wedges and ensure you drink water in between cocktails. Kombucha or sparkling water with some berries in a wine glass can feel just as festive! On that note…
  • Stay Hydrated – Not only can we mistake our body’s thirst signals for hunger, but dehydration can also contribute to fatigue, anxiety, irritability and cravings – none of which are things we want to deal with at any time, but especially during the holidays!
  • Don’t Forget the Self Care – Exercise, movement and meditation are important for stress management throughout the year, but particularly during the busy, hectic holiday season. Maintain your routine, it is much easier to keep doing something than to stop and have to start again (you know, that whole Newton’s First Law of Physics thing – an object in motion tends to stay in motion). Schedule it in, commit to it…you will be glad you did.
  • BYOD – Bring your own dish!! Offer to bring something to the party and you can ensure that there is at least ONE thing on the table that is nutrient dense, delicious and will fuel you properly! No one even needs to know it is a “healthier” alternative! In my experience, guests often rave about the dish without realizing they are eating something that’s nourishing. It can be our little secret!
  • Drop the Guilt – If you pay attention to any of these tips – pay attention to this one! NO GUILT! Allow room for some indulgences – Grandma’s cheese biscuits (or apple pie or whatever your special item is) won’t always be there and it’s ok to choose to enjoy it! Balanced with more nourishing meals, you can choose your indulgences, eat with intention, enjoy the heck out of it and then LET IT GO.

So, yes, holidays do bring up images of sugar cookies, gingerbread and other treats. But, what if we widen our focus on those pictures? What do we find? Images of our family and friends, coming together around the table to celebrate the season with us. THIS, my friends, is the true magic of the holidays. The sense of community and connection with those that mean the most to us. The food is just a bit player, bringing us to the table.  This holiday season, use my tips to navigate the gatherings, fill up on quality time with family and friends and, just maybe, save a little room for one of Grandma’s famous cheese biscuits.

The Monday Mention – The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

The Monday Mention  The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

There’s something you should know about me… I’m a bibliophile, a bookworm, an avid reader. Whatever you want to call it, there is nothing I love more than immersing myself in a good book – especially when the sunny Pacific Northwest summer days turn to day after day of drizzle. Now, I’m no snob when it comes to my reading material – give me a mystery, a biography, an old classic or a science laden textbook – heck, even the back of a shampoo bottle – and I’m a happy camper. So I’ve decided I should use at least some of the hours I spend with my nose buried in a book as fodder for this blog and share my thoughts on some of my favourite, and maybe not so favourite, health and nutrition related tomes.

First, a Favourite….

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma – A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan confronts the seemingly simple questions of “What should we eat?” and “Where does my food come from?”. By tracking four meals back through the food chain, Pollan discovers that the choices we make when it comes to our food reach far beyond merely deciding meat or vegetable, low fat or high fat. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is less about choosing from the variety of foods we COULD eat and more about determining what we SHOULD eat, as these choices not only affect our health, but have political, ethical, environmental and financial consequences as well.

Throughout the book, Pollan takes us through the sourcing of meals supplied by three different food chains, the industrial, the organic (both industrial and pastoral) and the hunter gatherer. Tracing these meals back to their roots provides some surprising and disturbing insights related to each of these food systems. Industrialized corn, by being massively overproduced and subsidized by the government, has found it’s way into virtually everything we eat — whether it is the feed used to produce meat, high fructose corn syrup or other additives used in processed foods. The variety we see at the grocery store is really an illusion, as the industrialized food system has turned our society of omnivores into specialized eaters of corn (pg. 117). Ironically, the mountain of corn produced on farms each year cannot support the farmers themselves, either physically (as it must be processed to be eaten) or financially. Today’s monoculture farms are really nothing more than food deserts (pg.34).

The organic food system, through absence of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, is undoubtedly healthier than the basic industrial system. The differences between the two, however, stop there. With mono crops and their need for fertilizers (even if organic) due to soil depletion, the petrochemicals used in shipping and the use of synthetics in food production, organic now resembles industrial more than ever. The industry uses marketing and catch phrases to lull the consumer into believing what they are buying is good for them, the animals and the environment.

Conversely, the pastoral farm system (absolutely my favourite section of the book) relies on a symbiotic relationship between the earth and animal and between different species of animals, as well. It’s a system that recognizes the bio-individuality of the animal and lets them express their innate instincts. This type of sustainable system creates an ecological loop, where waste basically ceases to exist. The environmental and moral benefits of this way of farming are obvious but, as Pollan recounts, not without its own set of issues. There is little support for the sustainable farmer as he has no need for the chemicals, machines and fertilizers sold by the companies that are most likely bankrolling the policy makers. Lack of subsidies and regulations forbidding the slaughter of animals on site all add to the cost of the food produced. As such, sustainable food is seen as something only the moderately wealthy can afford. This is another aspect of the Omnivore’s Dilemma explored in the book – does the money saved by buying government subsidized, mass produced, nutrient poor food offset its cost to our health, environment and ethical well being?

My much loved copy. Shoved into carry-on bags, left out on the patio and thumbed through relentlessly, I’ve read it several times and I think it has a few reads left in it!

The final meal prepared by the author was one he hunted and gathered himself. Pollan readily admits that this is not a viable way to source all food in today’s world, but in exploring this simplest of food chains he was able to re-establish a connection to and a gratitude for his food that is lacking in most standard food systems. He also explores the idea that America’s lack of culinary traditions (wisdom passed down by our ancestors informing us of what we should eat and how it should be prepared) leaves us prone to confusion and “Omnivore Anxiety” (Pg.300). Without guidelines provided by our culture, we are more apt to follow the advice of so-called experts, the slick words of marketers and sadly, end up with a fad diet not tailored for us, but for the pocket books of big business.

I would implore anyone who eats food to read this book. Whether you eat industrially, organically or sustainably, you should know where your food comes from so you are making educated choices. One reason I chose to review this book is because, as a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, I advise clients to source food from sustainable producers as much as possible – food that is local, seasonal, nutritionally dense and, in many cases, more expensive than what, on the surface, looks to be the same product sold at the grocery store for less money. Being able to discuss how your food choices affect your health, the environment and even influence the food economy is vital. The observations Michael Pollan makes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma align well with the principles of Nutritional Therapy and delve further in to the question of what we should eat than just looking at what is healthier for the individual. The more we educate ourselves, the less complex the Omnivore’s dilemma becomes. By gathering this knowledge, we empower ourselves to make changes that benefit our wellbeing, the wellbeing of our land and animals and the wellbeing of our food system as a whole. Joel Salatin, the “Godfather” of sustainable farming practices, is quoted in the book as saying, “In nature, health is the default. Most of the time pests and disease are just nature’s way of telling the farmer he’s doing something wrong” (pg.321). Perhaps the same could be said of our human diet. The rise in chronic diseases that we are experiencing could very well be Nature’s way of telling us that what we are eating is wrong.

My Rating – 5/5 Peaks


Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History Of Four Meals. New York : Penguin Press, 2006. Print.


It’s been a minute since I’ve had time to sit down and get some thoughts down on this digital paper! I enjoy writing, but it can take me a LOOOOONG time to figure out how to organize all the thoughts in my head into something that other people might want to read! Summer – especially the delicious, but oh so short, summers we get here in the PNW – was NOT the time to be labouring over a keyboard. Instead, I spent a tonne of time with visiting family, played outside, tended my garden (more on that fiasco later) and even managed a short getaway to camp and enjoy some outdoor concerts! But all good things must come to an end. Don’t get me wrong, I love Autumn! The fall colors, the crisp air…the lack of screaming children in the grocery store when I run my errands….blissful. Autumn is also a time to reset and get back to your regularly scheduled programming, if you will. For me, this means I’m getting back to the gym regularly, refocusing on building my business, meal planning and ensuring that the fridge is stocked with nutrient dense, whole foods.  (After all the company we’ve had, it also means I should be doing a full house clean – but there are plenty of rainy days in my future for THAT!)

5 Tips For a Healthier Grocery Shop


1.  Is it a WHOLE food?

When I talk about stocking up on WHOLE food, I mean just that. Foods in their whole, unadulterated form – packaged just as Mother Nature intended. The food item should BE the ingredient, not be made up of ingredients. She is a smart cookie, that Mother Nature, creating foods that are balanced with the nutrients required for their use in the body! Take fruit, for example, yes it contains sugar in the form of fructose, but it also contains fiber (which can slow the sugar’s absorption) and minerals to aid in its metabolism or use in the body . The same can’t be said for that can of soda! 

2. Think Variety

Variety is the spice of life! We want to be eating a broad range of foods. In a Standard American Diet, approximately 60% of calories come from just 3 foods – soy, corn and wheat.  Seems unbelievable, but check out this article from the Center for Advanced Medicine for an explanation of how this has occurred. Our bodies need a much more diverse range of nutrients. Try to “eat the rainbow” in the produce section and get as many colours on your plate as possible. More colours equals more nutrients!  Think outside the box – organ meat is some of the MOST nutrient dense food out there. It can be daunting to try ingredients that you’ve never used before, but changing it up can make mealtimes a bit more exciting and ensure that you don’t get stuck in a nutrient rut.  Challenge yourself to try something new!  I won’t judge you if you start with eggplant over beef liver!

3. Think Seasonally

Our ancestors didn’t have access to asparagus for twelve months of the year. Foods were only available for short periods of time. Eating seasonally is a great way to get diversity into your diet and ensure a broad range of nutrients which changes frequently and benefits your health and well being. Eating with the seasons can also prevent overconsumption of foods, which can lead to food sensitivities. Another great reason to eat seasonally is that, generally, the food has not been stored as long and will be more nutrient rich! There are great lists you can find online (like the one I provided below) to help you determine what is “in season”.

4. Think Locally

Sure, if you live in the middle of Canada in December, there isn’t going to be a plethora of fresh, local veg at your market.  Local snow cones, however, would NOT be an issue.  As much as you can, whenever you can – eat local.  Farmers Markets, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes, your own garden (I managed to get a good crop of radishes this year, the rest ended up in the bellies of our neighbourhood wildlife) – food is fresher and more nutrient dense because it was literally JUST harvested and doesn’t travel long distances (therefore there is less risk of contamination and it’s also better environmentally) .  Plus it’s also going to be in season (see point #3)!  Eating locally also helps support those local farmers who work so hard to provide delicious and nutritious food for us!

Eat local when you can!  

5. Think Quality

I get it, organic produce is expensive and, not for nothing, looks pretty much exactly like its cheaper, conventional cousin.  So what’s the difference?  Although different countries have different regulations around the term “organic”, in the U.S., certified organic means there are annual audits to ensure the following standards are met: 

– No synthetic fertilizers or pesticides

– No antibiotics or hormones 

– No GMOs

Organic animal products are fed organic feed, but the term alone does not specify if an animal is grass-fed, grain-fed or pasture raised. 

There are many benefits to sourcing and eating organic, including limiting your exposure to toxins from pesticides and fertilizers.  Beyond just adding to the toxic load your body must deal with, these compounds can be potential carcinogens and/or endocrine disruptors.  Interestingly, pesticides, while they may “protect” the produce from insect damage, have also been shown to decrease the amount of phytonutrients or antioxidants the plant produces.  Phytonutrients are a plants own natural “bug repellent” and, when doused with chemical pesticides, the plants no longer get chewed on and have less need to create these compounds.  This makes the food less nutrient dense for us consumers!

But THE COST!!!  My advice? Do what you can with what you have.  I’d rather see someone chowing down on conventionally grown carrots than diving into a box of toaster strudels!  Follow the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen Lists and choose your organic produce from those that may have the highest pesticide residue.  A final tip is to get to know your farmers!  Many smaller farms follow all the organic standards, but simply do not have the money to get “certified”.  Ask questions.  Any farmer worth his salt will be glad to chat with you about their product.

I hope this helps you get stocked up and ready to reset and take on the impending season change with ease and health!  It’s always bittersweet to bid farewell to summer, but I’m starting to dream about roasted root veggies, slow braises, soups and stews, pumpkin pie……


Digestion Tips

Ok – so Hippocrates may have been a bit of a drama queen, but he was certainly no dummy!  The reality is that poor digestion really does affect our health on all levels.  If we can’t digest the food we ingest, we won’t absorb its nutrients and every cell of every tissue of every organ in our bodies relies on those nutrients for proper structure and function.  “But how do I know if I’m properly digesting my food” you ask?  Burping, upset stomach, heartburn and reflux, gas and bloating, diarrhea, constipation…these are NOT normal!  These are your body’s way of letting you know that the digestive train has run off the track.  Ignoring or putting a bandaid disguised as an antacid over them will only lead to bigger issues in the future.  Let’s take the journey and see exactly where and how that train jumped the track.  

Just as the route of proper digestion travels north to south, so too does the dysfunction.  Let’s start with the brain then.  If you were so kind as to read my last post all the way through (insert applause here), you’ll remember that digestion only occurs when we are in a relaxed state.  Stress completely shuts down digestion.  Think about it, if you’re being chased by a bear (admittedly, a pretty stressful situation), do you want your brain sending messages telling the digestive system to organize the breakdown of the berries and deer meat you just consumed?  Or do you want it to ignore that stuff and send those resources to your heart, lungs and muscles to give you the energy to get the heck out of there!?!  The brain, as amazing as it is, cannot differentiate between the stress of a bear attack and the stress of our modern lives.  So when you are grabbing breakfast on your way out the door, eating dinner while stuck in traffic on the way to the ball game, working through lunch or mindlessly shoving popcorn down while watching Game of Thrones…you probably aren’t digesting.  Just for kicks, let’s carry on with the journey. 

Everyone can remember at some point in their lives being told (usually by mom or grandma) that you need to “slow down and chew your food”.  Rather than just a devious plan to make family mealtime even longer, it was valid advice!  Food should be chewed for about 30 seconds before swallowing.  Without proper chewing, the brain does not receive the message to trigger digestive processes and the production of saliva.  Without enough saliva, the breakdown of carbohydrates does not begin in the mouth and cannot be completed further down the line in the small intestine.  So we end up with undigested carbohydrates entering the colon, feeding candida (yeast) and generally disrupting the balance of microbes in our gut (dysbiosis).

We now arrive at the stomach.  The stomach is all about that stomach acid.  The acid in the stomach is our first line of defence against any little nasties (bacteria, parasites, viruses) that we may ingest.  Without enough stomach acid, these organisms can thrive and proliferate, wreaking havoc on our G.I. tract.  Digestive issues in the stomach most often stem from too little stomach acid.  You read that right.  The heartburn, reflux, bloating many experience is caused by TOO LITTLE ACID.  I know you are thinking “what about all those people who have to take antacids every day because they have TOO much stomach acid?”  The reality is that producing too much stomach acid, a condition known as Zollinger-Ellison syndrome, is very rare and affects only about 1 in every 1 million people (  The majority of us have too little stomach acid (HCl) and its production is inhibited by things such as stress, excess carbohydrate consumption, alcohol and certain nutrient deficiencies.  But how can we experience such discomfort and burning if we don’t have enough acid?  Let’s take a look.  When there is not enough acid in the stomach, food does not get broken down.  This undigested food sits in the stomach and start to degenerate.  Carbohydrates ferment, proteins putrefy and fats rancidify.  Sounds lovely, no?  This produces gas and increased pressure in the abdomen causing a backward flow into the esophagus.  The lining of the esophagus was not intended to be exposed to acidic conditions so, even though the amount of acid in the stomach is too low for proper digestion, it will still burn the heck out of the unprotected lining of the esophagus. 

Compounding the problem, the pyloric sphincter – or doorway –  to the small intestine does not want to open because the chyme in the stomach is not at the right acidity.  This further potentiates the degradation, gas and pressure build up.  Eventually the sphincter releases allowing the contents into the small intestine.  The acidity of the chyme is not low enough to trigger the release of the pancreatic juices containing sodium bicarbonate and pancreatic enzymes.  Without the sodium bicarbonate, the chyme remains too acidic for the tender tissues of the small intestine and duodenal ulcers can occur.  Pancreatic enzymes, which complete digestion, can only work at a higher pH.  Their activity is impeded in this acidic environment and we now have large molecules of food impacting those little villi and microvilli of the small intestine.  This, essentially, punches “holes” in the lining of the small intestine causing LEAKY GUT SYNDROME.  With the integrity of this membrane compromised, large molecules of protein and fats can pass through and activate the immune system. (Your immune system sees these large molecules as foreign).  

The maldigested foods then pass on to the large intestine where they continue to degenerate.  This disrupts our healthy gut flora and causes a weakening of the cells of the colon.  This can cause inflammation, loss of tone and contribute to a myriad of intestinal health issues.

You can see how just one imbalance (low stomach acid) can lead to a snowballing cascade of digestive issues.  I haven’t even touched on the effect of unhealthy fats and inadequate hydration on the digestive processes.  More on those at a later date.  We are sneaking into “overwhelm” territory with this post!  I think it’s also important to recognize that digestive processes require nutrients.  Nutrients like chloride to produce stomach acid and proteins to create enzymes.  When we aren’t digesting our food properly, we aren’t absorbing these required nutrients and so it becomes a viscous cycle.  So what can you do?


  • REST TO DIGEST – create a relaxed mealtime routine.  Use breathing techniques to “come down” from the stress of the day.  Take time to appreciate and savour your food.   
  • CHEW your food thoroughly – try putting your fork down between bites!
  • DON’T drink a lot of fluids right before or during meals – this can dilute stomach acid
  • DO drink adequate water at other times during the day  – provide your body with the nutrients it needs to produce stomach acid.  These include good quality, filtered water, chloride from sea salt and zinc (meat, shellfish and properly prepared legumes are good sources)
  • AVOID unhealthy fats (hydrogenated, trans, canola, soy) and low fat diets  – these lead to gallbladder dysfunction and issues with fat absorption
  • DO eat a nutrient dense, properly prepared, whole foods diet – many foods help support proper digestion by supplying the nutrients required for the digestive processes  

I think we’ve done a pretty thorough job of making our way through digestion and seeing how important it is to our overall health.  For those of you who managed to stick with me through the journey (Hi mom and dad!), this is the end of my Community Outreach Project for my Nutritional Therapy Course.  Going forwards, I plan to mix it up a little to include some favourite recipes, meal prepping tips, food sourcing info along with a little more (less intense) talk about the foundations of health.  If there is anything you’d like to learn about please let me know by clicking on the post and commenting!  Until then, I wish you good health!

Chew On This….

I can probably help you out with two of those ingredients for happiness….you’re on your own with the bank account!  Digestion.  Ingesting, breaking down, absorbing and eliminating food stuffs.  Seems pretty simple but, in reality, good digestion is a pretty complex process with lots of moving parts.  Kind of like a well-conducted orchestra, the processes of digestion cue each other and work together melodiously.  For a lot of us, our digestive orchestra is pretty out of tune causing symptoms like indigestion, bloating and well…a really loud horn section (if you get my drift)!

Before we dig into everything that can go wrong in our guts, let’s take a look at what GOOD digestion looks like.  Fair warning, if you don’t geek out on physiology like I do, this might be a little intense.  But bear with me!  It will make understanding what’s wrong with your digestion a lot clearer.  My proofreader (husband) said he “learned a lot, but it reads a bit like a textbook”.  Ugh.  I tried to make it as conversational as possible.  Since I may have missed the mark, there is a “Cliff Notes” diagram at the end of the post for anyone who wants it!  Oh, and he also informs me that one no longer needs to insert two spaces after a period!?!  I’m living in the dark ages of typewriters and word processors I guess.  I’ll work on improving my tech savvy – promise!

If I were to ask you where digestion starts, what would you say?  I conducted a  highly sophisticated study ( ok, I asked three people – very smart people though) and 100 percent of them answered incorrectly.  Folks, digestion begins in the BRAIN!!!  Are your “digestive starting points” blown?!?  Yep, digestion is a north to south process starting in your noggin.  The sight, smell or even thought of food triggers our brain to stimulate the salivary glands to produce saliva and stimulates the gastric glands to start releasing gastric juices.  This only happens when we are in a relaxed or parasympathetic state.  The brain can shut down digestion completely in stressful situations.  More on this when we discuss dysfunction – for now we’ll assume everything is calm, zen and the juices are flowing.

So once we are drooling over the great smells coming out of the kitchen, have decided to chow down and put a delicious forkful of food in our mouth, the actual breakdown of the food begins.  Chewing provides mechanical breakdown of the food, while enzymes in the saliva begin the chemical breakdown.  Salivary amylase is the primary enzyme in saliva and it begins the digestion of carbohydrates, or starches, into simple sugars.  If you were to chew and chew and chew on a cracker, for example, it will eventually start to taste sweet because those amylases are breaking the starch down into simpler sugars.  Along with amylases, the saliva contains lipase, which begins the digestion of fats, and lysozyme.  Lysozyme doesn’t play a role in digesting our food, but does digest carbohydrates in certain bacterial cell walls and serves as protection from any little nasties we may ingest.  Saliva also moistens the food, allowing for easier transfer down the tract.  So once we’ve chewed and moistened our bite of food adequately, we have a bolus.  The bolus is swallowed and travels through the esophagus to the stomach – the first of the BIG 3 organs of digestion.

In the stomach, the mechanical breakdown of the food continues via mixing and churning.  It is here though, that the chemical breakdown really gets going.  Gastric juices are composed of mucus (from mucus cells) that protects the lining of the stomach from the extremely acidic environment, pepsinogen (from chief cells) which is converted by stomach acid to the protein cleaving pepsin and hydrochloric acid (HCl) from parietal cells.  HCl serves many functions.  It disinfects the stomach, kills bacteria and parasites, activates pepsin for protein digestion, breaks down some proteins on its own and stimulates release of gastrin which both increases the muscle contraction of the gut and stimulates the stomach to release more gastric acid.  That’s a pretty hardworking acid!  Imagine all the things that could go wrong when we don’t have enough stomach acid ( totally foreshadowing here…). our bolus of food has been churned and mixed with gastric juices and becomes a lovely little slurry called CHYME.  When the particles in the chyme are small enough and its pH is acidic enough, it passes through the pyloric sphincter and into the upper part of the small intestine called the duodenum.  The small intestine is where the majority of the digestion and absorption takes place.  It’s also where we’ll see the other two of our BIG 3 organs of digestion come into play.  The chyme that enters the small intestine is super acidic at a pH between 1.5 and 3 (it has to be in order to “open the door” to the small intestine), so the walls of the duodenum start secreting mucus for protection.  At the same time, it starts secreting two hormones into the blood stream, secretin and cholecystokinin (CCK).  I know, I know.  I’m throwing some big, consonant heavy words at you, but don’t worry, there isn’t a quiz.  Unless you want there to be….it can be arranged!  So the secretin travels through the bloodstream to the second of the BIG 3 organs, the pancreas.  Here it acts as a sort of fireman, stimulating the pancreas to release a flood of bicarbonate into the duodenum via the pancreatic duct.  This brings the pH of the chyme up towards neutral (pH 7) and creates an environment optimal for the work of the enzyme portion of the pancreatic juices.  The release of these enzymes from the pancreas is stimulated by cholecystokinin.  Although the stomach started the digestion (mostly of proteins), there is still a lot of work to be done and the juices from the pancreas contain enzymes to digest all three macronutrients – carbohydrate, fats and proteins.  CCK also stimulates our last BIG 3 organ, the gallbladder.  The gallbladder, under the prompting of CCK, releases bile into the small intestine.  Bile aids in the absorption and digestion of fats by breaking down, or emulsifying, the fat molecules into smaller globules.  This creates more surface area for the actions of the enzymes for fat digestion (lipases) and the breakdown can occur more quickly.

So now we’ve broken down our food  – carbohydrates into monosaccharides, such as glucose; proteins into peptides and amino acids; fats into fatty acids and glycerol molecules – and we continue our journey south in the small intestine to the jejunum.  This is where the majority of the absorption occurs.  The small intestine is not flat, but consists of circular folds.  Lining the surface of these folds are millions of little “finger-like” projections called villi and microvilli that point in towards the centre where our absorbable nutrients are hanging out.  These folds, villi and microvilli serve to increase the surface area of the small intestine to allow more area through which these molecules can be absorbed.  The total surface area of the small intestine is about 250 square meters; the size of a tennis court!  Here the nutrient molecules are absorbed into the blood stream and carried throughout the body.  Assuming our digestion game is on point, all that’s left at this point is some indigestible fibers, bile, water and cells that have sloughed off the lining of the gastrointestinal tract.

The final leg of the journey takes us through the ileocecal valve and into the large intestine.  This is the recycling centre of the body.  Here the body recycles water by reabsorption, uses some of the waste material to nourish the colon cells, converts certain nutrients into vitamins (Vitamins K, B1, B2, B12 and butyric acid) with the help of our friendly gut bacteria and, yes finally, forms and expels the remainder as feces.

Phew!!  If you made it through all that, I seriously applaud you!  Our digestive system – such an amazing, organized and efficient machine.  At any step, however, things can get derailed….like seriously, careening off the tracks, derailed.  And this is where we’ll pick up next time with a hopefully (but, not likely) MUCH shorter post!  Thanks for hanging in there!

For those of you that gave up on my verbal (written?) diarrhea (sorry, bad choice of words perhaps) – here is the bare bones summary as promised waaaay back at the beginning of the post (you can click on it to open a larger image!).