How Does Digestion Work?


When you eat something, your body has to make a decision: to digest or not to digest. It’s a fairly simple choice because most simple carbohydrates (simple sugars, fruits), complex carbohydrates (grains, cereals), and starches (potatoes, pasta) don’t require digestion. Since their sugar molecule size is very small, these types of foods can enter the bloodstream with little or no digestion.


On the other hand, proteins, minerals, and fats are a different story. These are large molecules which do require digestion. The nutrients in these groups are usually locked in larger molecules and trapped in tissues, so it takes your body a huge amount of effort to access these nutrients. Once they’ve made it to your stomach, the brain sends signals through specific hormones to your gallbladder and pancreas to initiate the digestive process. This triggers the release of hydrochloric acid, the only acid your body produces. It begins breaking down the food and splitting the proteins from your meal to release individual amino acids. This entire process can take between two to four hours, depending on how much work your body needs to do to prepare for the next stage of digestion.


It’s during this stage where the digestion process can be stopped short. If you eat simple sugars during this point in the digestive process, your body will send a signal to your brain that no digestion is required. Not only do sugars (usually desserts) interfere with digestion, but they have a negative interaction with the hydrochloric acid, which can lead to bloating and gas. Since this important initial stage of digestion has been interrupted, the food that would usually pass through your digestive tract in 18-36 hours stays in your system for up to 72 hours, becoming toxic and increasing the risk of colon-related illnesses.


Impacted food waste can stay in your system even longer. The average person can carry an alarming amount of food waste - as much as 10-15 pounds or more, trapped in their colon at any given time. Since the food was not correctly broken down in this beginning part of the digestive process, the body ends up receiving little or no nutritional value from the meal. Over hydration also inhibits the effectiveness of hydrochloric acid, by diluting the enzyme HLA activity. You can easily prevent this from happening by limiting the amount of liquid your drink during a meal to between 10-12 oz.


If you have a sweet-tooth (no shame!) and must have something sweet alongside your meal, fresh pineapple is the key. It contains a protein-splitting enzyme called bromelain, which acts in the same way as hydrochloric acid and assists digestion. Otherwise, save your cravings for one hour before, or two- three hours after a meal.


If your body is able to move forward with the digestive process, the stomach empties into the duodenum, and the pancreas is alerted to the digestion process. The pancreas produces its own digestive juices which are filled with enzymes that help complete the job of breaking down food particles to molecular size, so its nutrients can be absorbed by your body.


Water, ions (sodium, calcium, iron, chloride, sulfate, and water and fat-soluble vitamins) are all absorbed in the duodenum. In the next section of the small intestine, the jejunum, glycerol, and fatty acids along with simple sugars (glucose and galactose) and amino acids continue to be absorbed. Finally, in the ileum, sodium, hydrogen ions, gamma globulins, bile, salts and vitamin B12 are absorbed.

It’s easy to see how easily we can deter proper digestion, which the body needs to perform daily in order to function. Most people are not receiving the full nutritious benefits from their meals, but rather gaining empty calories, bad fats and chemical additives from processed food. This includes fast food, and prepackaged lunches full of nitrates (meats), preservatives (no nutritional value), and a dessert (full of artificial sweeteners or preservatives). Once you know what it takes for your body to correctly process food, it’s easy to begin to guide your body towards better health.