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 (https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/zollinger-ellison-syndrome).  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…).

Ok..so 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!).

Build Me Up Buttercup

We’ve all heard quotes like the above one before – heck even The 3 Little Pigs taught us that a house made of brick was the way to go if we want to stay safe from the big, bad wolf.  Nutrition and health aren’t any different.  If we want to stay safe from the big bad wolf (a.k.a chronic disease and decreased quality of life) – we need to make sure our foundations are strong!

There are six factors to health that are considered to be “The Nutritional Foundations”.  

  1. Nutrition (seems kinda obvious hey?) – A diet of properly prepared, nutrient dense, whole foods.  I’ll delve more into this topic in later posts, but for now let’s just say that this IS NOT the diet that most North Americans are currently eating.  Think local, sustainable, seasonal, and organic vs boxed, bagged, refined and/or provided by a creepy giant clown with red hair.  You get the picture.
  2. Digestion – This will be our first deep dive. Without properly digesting the food we eat, balancing any of the other foundations is pretty much out of the question.  We need to properly breakdown food and absorb nutrients to support ALL of the other foundations. 
  3. Blood Sugar Regulation – The body must maintain its blood glucose level within a pretty narrow range.  Too low and you get cranky, shaky, and ravenously hungry – widely recognizable (particularly by my poor hubby) as HANGER.  Too high and it can damage our cells and tissues.  Prolonged high blood sugar can lead to complications including heart disease, vision impairment, kidney dysfunction and poor wound healing, which we often see in diabetics.  Constant cycling between high and low blood sugar (the dreaded sugar crash) also comes with its own set of issues, which is why it is important to ensure balanced energy levels.
  4. Fatty Acid Balance – Our bodies need healthy fats!!  Fats play so many important roles in the body, from providing building blocks for our cell membranes and hormones, to providing a dense energy source, to keeping us full and, most importantly, making food taste GOOOOOD! Hellooo butter 🥰!  The key word here is HEALTHY fats.  There’s a lot of stigma, fear and misconception out there surrounding fat and we are going to unpack and address ALL of that eventually!
  5. Mineral Balance – Minerals are our spark plugs and are needed by every system in the body.  In order to make healthy bones, we need minerals.  To get our muscles to contract and relax, we need minerals.  To transfer nutrients across cell membranes – you guessed it – we need minerals.  The kicker is, we cannot make our own minerals and, therefore, we must get them from the foods and beverages we consume.
  6. Hydration – YES!  Water is a nutrient!  Probably the most important nutrient and, sadly, the most common deficiency in our society as well.  Our bodies are composed of about 60% water by mass and pretty much every body process from digestion to body temperature regulation to breathing requires water.  Think you are drinking enough?  Here’s the thing – you can be drinking buckets full of water and NOT ABSORBING IT!!  We need the right minerals (called electrolytes) to be able to absorb and utilize the water we drink.  Every foundation supports the others!

So there you have it!  The six foundations of proper nutrition!  It’s a lot to “digest” (sorry – had to do it), which is why, in the next post, we’ll dive right into the foundation of Digestion – The Good, The Bad and the Ugly…. In the meantime, click on the post’s title and leave me a comment or question!  If you are on the shy side, you can email your questions to shannon@peaknutritionandwellness.com. Thanks for reading!!


The Nutritional Therapy Association believes every person’s nutritional needs are unique to themselves and, by utilizing the wisdom of our ancestors in combination with contemporary research, we can work to balance the very foundations of our health and reverse the damage done by today’s modern diet.  The NTA provides us with the knowledge to transform an individual’s health using nutrient dense, properly prepared, whole foods.  They bring together like minded people to connect, learn from each other and work together to change the way society approaches health and wellness.  Nutritional Therapy Practitioners (NTPs), who are certified by the NTA, empower individuals to take control of their own health and work with them to reach their personal health goals.  Each interaction is adapted to the individual client to meet their specific needs — there is no One Size Fits All plan here!  By using proper nutrition, positive lifestyle changes and reversing nutrient deficiencies, NTP’s help set the stage for the optimal health each of us deserve!

A big focus of the program is the consideration of each person’s bio-individuality.  Bio-individuality is basically just a fancy way of saying that each person is unique and, as such, each of our diets (beyond being comprised of nutrient dense, whole foods) will vary depending on many factors.  These can include genetics, current health status, gut microbiome and even personal taste.  In fact, what is properly nourishing for a person at this moment in time may not be as nourishing further down the road if any of these factors change. (Pregnant vs non-pregnant, digestive health etc.)  Respecting bio-individuality is significant.  It highlights the fact that there is no single type of diet that will work for everyone.  The road to true health is dependent on finding out what works best for you in the moment and recognizing when your nutritional needs have changed.  Figuring all this out can feel a little like throwing darts at a moving target, but don’t worry!!  Nutritional Therapy Practitioners help clients learn to recognize and listen to what your body is telling you it needs (or doesn’t need!).  Our bodies have innate intelligence – sounds a little hokey I know!  But, the body uses this intelligence to govern every single action in our bodies, to heal itself and bring us back to optimal health.  To supply the body with the ingredients (or nutrients) it needs to carry out all these tasks, there are certain fundamental factors that need to be brought back into balance.  We refer to these as “The Nutritional Foundations”.  It’s kinda like building a house, if the foundation is shaky – that house isn’t going to stand for very long!  

In my next post I’ll go over what we consider to be the foundations of Nutritional Therapy and how they support our health! If you’d like to leave me a comment, click on the post’s title! Thanks!

Pharmacist to “Farmacist”….

Real Medicine

Nutritional Therapy??  I thought you were a pharmacist?!?

Well, I was!  Technically, I still am (licensed in Canada and all up to date on my continuing education units!)  So why the switch?  Most of you probably know my story, but for those of you that have somehow stumbled upon this newbie’s blog – let’s catch up!

I had been working in the health care system as a pharmacist for nearly 20 years (I graduated when I was 9 😉 ) when my husband was offered a dream job in the Seattle area.  We certainly weren’t looking for a huge life change, we had just finalized plans to build our dream house, both our families lived nearby and we enjoyed a close circle of friends – but after a lot of discussion and sleepless nights, we decided to take the leap and I hung up my lab coat, joining the ranks of the unemployed.

Initially, I fully intended to write the myriad of exams that would allow me to practice pharmacy in the States.  Having spent the first 6 months reviewing subjects I hadn’t thought about since pharmacy school (I’m talking to you Organic Chemistry!),  I soon realized that maybe the fact that I was dragging my feet in applying to write the exams was evidence that I really didn’t feel excited about returning to the dispensary.  What I had, though, was an opportunity to pursue a whole new passion!!  The only catch was that I had to figure out what that passion was.

I’ve always loved the sciences and learning about what makes us humans tick, it’s kinda my comfort zone at this point.  I also knew that my interest in all things food runs a lot higher than the average person who is just trying to get a meal slapped together at the end of the day.  I first started eating Paleo about 9 years ago when it was introduced to me through my Crossfit gym.  I’ve gone back and forth, tinkered with a more Primal style of Paleo, tried Keto and intermittent fasting.  Sometimes I was consistent and sometimes I was very inconsistent – but I knew from my own experience that a whole food, nutrient dense diet was a key foundation to health and vitality.  One of my biggest frustrations as a pharmacist was seeing people come to the counter to pick up their prescriptions for diabetes, heart disease etcetera and then seeing the junk they had in their grocery carts!

Combining these two interests led me to looking at different Nutrition programs.  I was feeling pretty defeated since most were very expensive and wouldn’t recognize the pre-requisites I completed all those many moons ago.  I didn’t want to go into debt and I DEFINITELY didn’t want to repeat Biology or English 101!  But the biggest reason I kiboshed these programs was that the curriculum offered in most of them didn’t align with my personal beliefs regarding nutrition.  Finally, I came across the website for the Nutritional Therapy Association and I thought “WOW – This is exactly what I’ve been looking for!”  Being the over thinker that I am, I talked myself out of it several times.  I have no experience in creating and fostering a business – how could I possibly make it work?  But I kept coming back to that website and, finally, took the leap.

My hope in pursuing this area of study is to educate and empower people to be proactive, not reactive, with their health and to encourage clients and other health care professionals to see proper nutrition as the first step in optimizing wellness.  I want to be a part of creating a positive shift in the healthcare system where people don’t just survive, they thrive. 

Next time – We talk Nutrition and what makes the Nutritional Therapy Practitioner program different!!  See you soon!