#1 – Absorption of nutrients: Digestion is the process whereby our food gets broken down into smaller molecules, with the body extracting the essential nutrients that it needs to survive and transporting them via the bloodstream to where they are needed, enabling our body to keep functioning, with calcium being absorbed into the bones and anti-oxidants being immersed into the immune system. If our digestion is good then we will have stronger bones, agile muscles, lubricated joints and a healthy immune system that can defend us against invasive pathogens or viruses like the common cold. However, if digestion is hindered and nutrients are not absorbed correctly then it can lead to a build-up of toxins and certain nutritional deficiencies. The whole body will start to suffer as a consequence – we will become more prone to unpleasant digestive symptoms like diarrhoea or constipation, our immune system will become more vulnerable to infection, our bones more brittle, our moods more irritable and overall we will feel tired, less energetic and generally unwell.
#2 – Waste: Our digestive system isn’t just responsible for extracting what is good from our food but also expelling what we don’t need. If our body is unable to extract any nutrients then what is left is treated as waste and flushed out of our bodies as either urine or faeces. If we suffer from poor digestion, or indigestion, then this process can be slowed down, causing constipation or food can be passed too quickly through our digestive tract causing diarrhoea and dehydration. The build-up of waste products in our system can also prompt the release of toxins into our system and lead to a surge in the population of unfriendly bacteria in our stomach, stimulating symptoms such as bloating, flatulence or abdominal pain.
#3 – Bowel: Here, we refer to our small intestines, colon and rectum. The bowel is an integral part of the digestive system. If our digestion is good, then our bowels will operate as normal with the small intestine working to break-down food products, extract vital nutrients and pass waste products on through the colon to be expelled out of the anus. When we suffer from poor digestion, our small intestine is unable to properly break down food products, leading to a variety of unpleasant side-effects. The development of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, IBS, is just one possible option. This is a chronic condition characterised by flare-ups of constipation, diarrhoea, bloating and incontinence and it can manifest when our bowel starts to irregularly contract, either too quickly to too slowly.
#4 – Organs: The liver, gallbladder and pancreas are part of our digestive system and there is a great degree of interdependence. For instance, if the gallbladder is not working properly, fats are not digested well. On the other hand, what we eat and how we digest our food has a major influence of how our gallbladder functions and the formation of gall stones. Something similar can also occur in the kidneys - if nutrients such as phosphorus and oxalate are malabsorbed they can manifest as kidney stones.1
#5 – Joints and muscles: Good digestion ensures that vital vitamins and minerals are absorbed and transported to our joints and muscles. Nutrients such as vitamin D and magnesium are extremely useful in aiding the absorption of calcium whilst certain proteins can help to strengthen our muscles. If these nutrients are not extracted due to poor digestion, then it can lead to deficiencies. For example, a vitamin D deficiency can mean that calcium is not immersed correctly into the joints and certain anti-oxidants will not be able to encourage new tissue growth in the collagen, leading to joint wear and tear. If food waste is not disposed of properly, toxins may find their way into the joints and muscles, causing pain and irritation. If uric acid is not excreted properly, then it can crystallise around the joints, triggering an episode of gout.
#6 – Bones: Our bones are another area of our body that requires a steady flow of nutrients, like calcium, vitamin D, phosphorus and magnesium. If our food is not broken down properly, then our body becomes at risk of developing certain deficiencies. Having too much or too little stomach acid is often a symptom of poor digestion but it can lead to calcium not being metabolised properly, causing degenerative conditions in our bones such as osteoporosis.
#7 – Teeth: It’s estimated that 90% of systemic diseases can be reflected in the health of the oral cavity.2 In the case of good digestion, our teeth should be strong and well nourished by nutrients such as calcium, iron, vitamin B12 and vitamin C. When our teeth are deprived of these nutrients, the enamel will weaken, and our teeth will become more prone to deterioration, our gums more vulnerable to infection. Issues such as acid reflux have been known to stain and damage teeth while some inflammatory diseases like Crohn’s have side-effects that can spread to the oral cavity, giving rise to ulcers. Ironically, this perpetuates symptoms of poor digestion as our teeth are a vital component of the earlier stages of digestion, breaking down food so it can be relayed to the oesophagus.
#8 – The immune system: The immune system works tirelessly to protect our body from invasive pathogens, allergens and possible infections and is often our first line of defence against illness. Around 70% of our immune cells inhabit our gut, giving the digestive system a substantial degree of influence over the health and wellbeing of our immune system. If our ability to digest food is compromised, then the immune system will become vulnerable, deprived of anti-oxidants and minerals, and exposed to the unfriendly bacteria that reside in our digestive tract. This unfriendly bacteria is considered harmless in moderation but in optimum conditions they can multiply and overwhelm the immune cells in the gut. The immune system will respond by become hyperactive, overreacting to pathogens, allergens and certain proteins found in food products, releasing inflammatory anti-bodies that may stimulate episodes of allergic rhinitis or eczema. Another trigger for the immune system is the presence of undigested protein in the blood stream, which can again over-stimulate immune cells and exaggerate an existing cycle of drastic reactions.3
#9 – Skin: It is often remarked that if something is amiss internally, that it will present itself externally on our skin. The vitality of our skin cells is closely interlinked with both the immune and digestive systems respectively, and depends on both being strong and healthy. If our digestive system functions normally, then our skin cells will be revitalised by anti-oxidants, remaining robust and durable, protecting the body from potential irritants and allergens. However, if we suffer from digestive problems, they will inevitably be reflected in the health of our skin, either due to nutritional deficiencies, inflammation or a bacterial overgrowth in the gut. When our gut bacteria is affected, it can contribute to the development of certain skin conditions like acne. A study conducted in Russia found that 54% of test subjects afflicted by acne also had impaired gut microflora implying a strong connection between the two illnesses.4
#10 – Mood: Digestive problems can influence our mood in a vicious cycle, and vice versa. If we have a good, healthy digestive system then we are likely to be untroubled by gut related problems and, due to the absorption of feel good nutrients like vitamins C and D which increase our production of serotonin, our moods are likely to be well-balanced and improved. Nevertheless, in instances of poor digestion this is definitely not the case as our physical symptoms, such as constipation or abdominal pain, often cause us emotion distress, making us feel self-conscious, anxious and apprehensive. These feelings then place pressure on our already strained immune system, and can actually stimulate further digestive problems like cramping, loss of appetite, nausea and diarrhoea.