We’re so conscious about consuming nutritious food however there are many factors affecting nutrient absorption. So the question is: Are you actually absorbing the goodness you eat?
In this article I will explain the process of absorption of nutrients in the digestive system, what can hinder that, plus what you can do to help absorb all the nutrition from your food.
Where are nutrients absorbed?
The first stage of digestion for our carbohydrate foods occurs in our mouth. Enzymes in our saliva begin to break down our food whilst we are chewing. From the mouth, our food then moves down the esophagus into our stomach, where it’s mixed with digestive juice,s before leaving the gut and entering the small intestine.
The muscles of the small intestine mix the food with digestive juices (stomach acid, bile and enzymes) from the pancreas, liver and intestine, whilst pushing your food around (peristalsis). The lining of the small intestine then absorbs water and the digested nutrients into your bloodstream. As peristalsis continues, the waste products of the digestive process move into the large intestine. Waste products from the GI tract include undigested food particles, fluid and older cells from the lining of your small intestine. The large intestine absorbs water and changes the waste from liquid into stool.
Essentially, nutrient absorption occurs in the small intestine and the large intestine prepares waste for excretion.
What stops the body from absorbing nutrients properly?
There are several factors that can negatively affect nutrient absorption. They can be broken down into two categories; Dietary related and non-diet related.
- Alcohol interferes with normal digestion by damaging cells in the stomach and intestine, hence interfering with the release of important digestive enzymes. Alcohol also acts as a diuretic, promoting excretion of stored minerals such as calcium, iron and magnesium.
- Coffee & Tea – Caffeine can also promote excretion of vitamins and minerals. In excessive amounts the tannins (a type of plant compound) found in caffeine can also inhibit the absorption of calcium, iron, magnesium and B-vitamins.
- Gastrointestinal issues such as IBS, crons and coeliac disease. These conditions can impair the bodies ability to break down or absorb certain foods and can also increase inflammation in the gut.
- Stress. Believe it or not, stress negatively affects digestion. Cortisol is a hormone released when stress increases and cortisol slows down digestion (because you’re in survival mode, it prioritises blood flow to your limbs instead).
- Certain medications such as antacids, blood pressure medications, antidepressants and hormone medications can interfere with nutrient levels in the body.
- Prolonged use of antibiotics. Antibiotics can destroy “good” bacteria in the digestive system that play a role in helping the digestion and absorption of vitamins and minerals.
- Diseases of the gallbladder, liver or pancreas which effects your digestive enzymes.
- Parasitic diseases – Parasites can feed off the food in your small intestine before your body has had a chance to break down and absorb the nutrients.
What can enhance nutrient absorption in the body?
- Eat a broad range of foods. Different foods contain different vitamin and mineral contents, therefore it is best to consume a wide range of foods including fruits and vegetables of different colour groups.
- Slow down and chew your food well. Remember digestion starts in the mouth.
- Include healthy fats with meals. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble meaning they need fats to be effectively absorbed. Olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocado can be great healthy fats to add to your meals.
- Avoid boiling and over cooking your vegetables. All other vitamins are water soluble and over cooking and boiling vegetables can allow some of the vitamin content to leach out into the cooking water. Steaming, dry baking, grilling and stir-frying are great ways to keep those nutrients locked in.
- Avoid having caffeine and alcohol with meals or even take a break from caffeine and alcohol in general.
- Stress less. Get you eight hours sleep, exercise, get out in the sunshine, take deep breaths and try to bring more relaxation into your days to reduce the cortisol in your body.
- Pay attention to your gut health – any changes to your bowel movements, excessive flatulence, cramping, bloating or nausea – get it checked out.
- Follow a course of antibiotics with a course of probiotics to restore the balance of good bacteria in your gut.
- Stay hydrated and eat plenty of fibre (fruits, vegetables and wholegrains) to assist in optimal digestive health.
- If you struggle with low iron levels have your iron away from caffeine, alcohol and calcium containing foods. Also pair high iron foods (red meat, poultry, fish, green vegetables, almonds and legumes) with foods high in vitamin C (red and orange fruits and vegetables and kiwi fruit).
Tell me, did you know about these factors affecting nutrient absorption? Let me know via the comments below, I’d love to hear!