When we talk about digestion, there are organs that the food physically passes through. There are other organs that never even see a food particle, but there’s no way digestion could happen without them. Bring in the support staff: the pancreas, the gall bladder and the liver.
Each of these support organs provide substances that reduce acidity of the food entering the small intestine from the stomach and continue the breakdown of foods, but each one has its own role to play.
The pancreas essentially has two roles. First, it sends enzymes to the small intestine to help further digest the contents released from the stomach. Food that enters the small intestine is (hopefully) acidic. This acidity triggers a hormone called cholecystokinin (say that five times fast!), or CCK for short. CCK tells the pancreas to get moving! The more acidic the food (which depends on secretion of HCl in the stomach!) the more fluid is released. The pancreas then releases digestive enzymes that work to breakdown proteins, carbohydrates and fats among other things. Without these pancreatic enzymes, nutrients aren’t properly broken down, and deficiencies can appear.
The second role of the pancreas is to regulate blood sugar. Specifically, it regulates the hormones insulin and glucagon. I bet you’ve heard of insulin, but maybe not glucagon. These hormones work together to regulate blood sugar (it’s just what it sounds like – the amount of sugar (glucose) in the blood). Insulin is released when blood sugar levels are high. Glucagon is released when blood sugar levels are low. If the pancreas is sluggish or overworked and blood sugar regulation becomes defective, diabetes becomes a possibility.
The Gall Bladder
Just like the pancreas, when the acidity of food moving from stomach to small intestine triggers the release of CCK, this hormone tells the gall bladder to get moving! When the gall bladder kicks into gear, it releases bile. Bile isn’t made in the gall bladder, but it is store here and concentrated for maximum effect. Bile is essential for the breakdown of fat. When enough bile isn’t available or released, undigested fats might be excreted or lead to constipation. Without the proper breakdown of fat, the body can’t properly absorb fat soluble vitamins, like A, D, and E all of which are important antioxidants.
The liver has over 500 jobs to do. 500! Talk about overworked…With such an enormous amount of responsibility, it’s inevitable that some of these jobs relate to digestion. To start, most nutrients pass through a large vein in the liver before they end up in the blood stream.
How’s this for an analogy? The liver is like a factory that receives, produces and ships products. The “raw materials,” a.k.a., sugars, amino acids, and fatty acids, are received, assembled and distributed throughout the body. We already know that the gallbladder stores bile, but guess who makes it? The liver! But that doesn’t mean the liver isn’t a storage unit, too. It actually stores quite a few things, like:
- Fat Soluble Vitamins: A few months worth of vitamins A, D, E and K can be stored here.
- Vitamin B12: In fact, the liver has the capacity to store more than 5 years worth!
- Minerals: Many minerals can be found in the liver, especially iron, copper, and zinc.
- Glycogen: This is the storage form of glucose, and without it blood sugar levels would plummet between meals.
Some of these stored nutrients as well as some we ingest in our food are inactive. They come to the liver to be activated. On the other side of the coin, unwanted substances have to go through the liver to be inactivated. Substances like:
- Hormones either produced in the body or ingested in our food
- Chemicals from pesticides, cleaning products, prescription drugs, etc.
- Stimulants including nicotine and caffeine
So what can you do? Here’s a tip for each member of the digestive support staff:
- Pancreas: Regular meals full of complex carbohydrates, good protein, and healthy fats are the best thing you can do for your pancreas. It loves slowly digesting foods and slow release of nutrients.
- Gall Bladder: Teas that stimulate the gall bladder are pretty widely available. Chamomile and dandelion root are two options that don’t taste like crap.
- Liver: Start to become aware of where you ingest unnecessary chemicals: from your food to your personal care products to your cleaning products. Before you freak out, you don’t have eliminate everything at once! For example, when your shampoo runs out try a greener, cleaner one. When you find one you’re comfortable with, move on to your face wash.
Whew! I know that was a lot of info. And all of this may seem overwhelming. Believe me, I’ve been there. But I will leave you with this: making small, realistic changes over time will have the biggest and longest lasting effect. Forming new habits takes time, and that’s ok. It’s about making progress, not reaching perfection. A step in the right direction puts you ahead of where you were yesterday, even if you haven’t reached the destination.
Have questions? Don’t know where to start? Leave me a comment and we’ll figure things out together.