In the first part of this piece, we shared that even if you’re eating whole and healthy foods, your body could be absorbing as little as 10% to as much as 90% of the nutrients. We introduced the nutrients your body needs to function and stay healthy. Now, we’re diving into which organs extract those nutrients from food and how.
First, we should discuss the power player: human digestive system enzymes. Your body produces these enzymes to help break down food you eat into nutrients and waste. In order for the nutrients to be absorbed through the small intestines lining, the molecules have to be very small. So if you ever notice you’re experiencing gas or bloating, it may be because your body isn’t producing enough digestive enzymes to break the nutrients down into small enough pieces to be absorbed.
While your body creates digestive enzymes, raw, unprocessed foods can also provide them. This helps relieve your body the stress of having to produce all the enzymes needed to digest the food you eat.
Now, let’s look at the process from food first entering your mouth to nutrient extraction.
You may not realize it, but the digestive process starts the moment you chew food. You can help your digestive system out by chewing thoroughly and breaking the food down into smaller particles. When you swallow, food passes through your esophagus and into your stomach.
Once in your stomach, food stays in the upper portion for only around a half hour so carbohydrates can be further digested by amylase, an enzyme that comes from your saliva. Since raw foods have their own digestive enzymes, they are pre-digested in the stomach.
After, the food moves to the lower section of your stomach so gastric enzymes can break down proteins. Meanwhile, pepsin, hydrochloric acid and stomach movement work together to create chyme, an acid fluid consisting of gastric juices and partially digested food that moves into the small intestine.
The Small Intestine
Once food (or what’s left of it in its new form) enters the small intestine, it goes through yet another process of extraction and enzyme secretion. Food first deposits into the duodenum in the small intestine. Here, the food and digestive juices mix together before moving over into the jejunum, another part of the small intestines.
One in the jejunum, its lining of villi (think of them like fingers or brush bristles) sway to mix the contents and start separating the nutrients into glucose, amino acids and fatty acids. It’s amazing to think that your body can sense what types of foods have entered and what to do with each kind.
Any usable nutrients will be absorbed by the villi and dropped into your blood and lymph fluid. Once these nutrients are in the blood, your body can use them as energy or store them in another part of the body. Any unusable nutrients and remaining food particles that are left are processed into the ileum, the third portion of the small intestine, before becoming waste that your body eliminates.
During this entire process in the small intestine, the pancreas is helping your small intestine by producing a digestive juice of enzymes that help break down nutrients. The pancreas pushes these digestive juices into the duodenum so it can mix with the digested food and the enzymes can figure out what nutrients are usable or not and filter out the carbs, proteins and fats so they can go into the bloodstream.
Throughout this process, the liver also helps in two functions. First, it produces bile that’s stored in your pancreas. The liver creates more bile and the pancreas uses this bile when food enters your small intestine. This bile is used to mix with the digested food, identify fat molecules and extract them. The fat molecules are dissolved into tiny bits that the pancreas can absorb.
Secondly, the liver can store extra glucose molecules and fatty acids. When your body needs energy, the liver releases some of the molecules into the bloodstream.
What Happens When the Body Has Too Much or Too Little of a Nutrient
As you can see, if your body is off balance, certain organs may react differently and you may experience health problems or just not feel your best. Carbohydrates are important to your diet because they are used for energy and, unlike fats, can only be stored in your body for a few days. Your body uses carbs more so for quick, short bursts of energy.
While fats are also used for energy, since your body as unlimited storage space for fats, it’s easy to gain weight from consuming too many fatty foods. Proteins are necessary not only for building muscles and tissues, but they can also be used for energy if your body doesn’t have enough carbs or fats. But, if this happens too often, your body will start using muscle cells for energy. So, if you wanted to build muscle, you wouldn’t want to avoid fats and carbs and focus solely on consuming protein.
Understanding the Right Balance For Your Body
The most important takeaway is that everyone’s body is different with unique needs. Depending on your genetics, age, health and other factors, you may need more or less of a particular nutrient. If you’re tired of the guesswork, consider a DNA test, such as PathwayFit, which looks at more than 40 different traits, including the genetics behind your eating habits, your genetic diet type and which vitamins you may need to optimize. With the guidance of your physician, you can determine the most effective diet for you.