Many of us are lucky to be fed a balanced diet from a young age, as well as taught the importance of having a full range of vital minerals and vitamins. While we do not always manage to maintain that optimal diet we strive for, many of us have seen the results of having a long-term ‘clean’ diet: increased energy, improved physical appearance, and fewer symptoms of illness.
But consuming a balanced diet is not the full story. Even if you are consuming the right food in the right amounts, your body might not be distributing those nutrients the way it should. According to Drexel University, Philadelphia, Nutrition Science department head Prof Dr Stella Volpe, nutrients aren’t technically in our bodies until they have been absorbed. Until then, they are just passing through.
There are elements (age, diet, stress levels, gut bacteria) that can affect nutrient absorption and cause ailments such as osteoporosis, anaemia, diarrhoea, acne, dry eyes and lethargy. This is why you should have a better understanding of how absorption works. Food that travels into your stomach gets broken down by hydrochloric acid and enzymes like protease, lipase and amylase, into smaller molecules that then make their way into your upper intestine before entering the bloodstream, which delivers nutrients to your body’s organs.
The two types of nutrients absorbed are macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are foods that power your body directly. They are derived from carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Micronutrients are vital to the process of enabling the release of fuel from macronutrients. They are derived from your vitamins and minerals. Nutrients pass into the bloodstream through passive diffusion and active transport absorption. With passive diffusion, (which is similar to pouring liquid over a piece of cloth), the process simply involves the movement of nutrients from a high concentration area (the intestine) to an area of low concentration (the bloodstream).
With active transport absorption, nu- trients need an assistant, i.e. a molecule to help carry them past the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream. Vitamins, whether fat-soluble ones (like A, D, E and K) or water-soluble ones (like B and C), are absorbed via passive diffusion, while minerals like calcium and magnesium are delivered via active transportat. But, depending on the type of food, some nutrients can be absorbed more quickly than others. Your current nutritional status also plays a role. Without sufficient absorption, neither type of nutrition can be utilised maximally.
Certain foods like protein and fat require more time for digestion, as opposed to carbohydrates, but a balanced meal with a combination of all three types of food generally stays in your stomach for three to five hours before making its way to the small intestines, where absorption occurs. Depending on various factors, your body takes in anywhere between 10% to 90% of nutrients needed for your body to function properly. Even following serving sizes may not be an accurate measurement of how much of a nutrient you’re getting. It seems that understanding the exact amount of nutrient absorption needed is rather like a guessing game.
The good news is that although you have to play guesswork most of the time, there are things you can do to optimise the benefits of your food. In general, your body naturally aims to achieve homeostasis – a balance. When levels of certain nutrients are good, your body does not take in more than it needs, but will instead increase the intake of nutrients your body is low on until homeostasis is achieved.
The modern lifestyle is stressful and can have physical effects. To counter the stress that wreaks havoc on our wellbeing, the first step is to consume a balanced and high-fibre diet. Avoid harmful substances, and go to the gym at least three times a week – exercise is the perfect way to get your blood circulating, de-stress, and even feel better mentally. If you currently live on a diet of cigarettes and alcohol, do not feel daunted that you have to make a major change to your lifestyle. It does not have to happen in one day.
Making small changes and sticking to those changes will motivate you to keep improving your food and lifestyle, impacting nutrition absorption in the right way. Start by taking a walk in the evenings after returning from work, doing some light gardening or washing the car regularly. More specifically, if you had to choose one lifestyle change, the easiest would be food, as we all have to eat every day to sustain energy levels.
With so many health food stores around, there is little reason why we are not able to find healthier alternatives to the processed foods we eat regularly. But even if you are not convinced, the fresh food you buy from your regular wet markets are packed with vitamins and minerals, and there are ways to improve the process of tapping into those nutrients.
Experts and nutritionists have experimented with food combining, a practice where specific types of food are purposely designed to be consumed all together in one meal, impacting the efficiency of nutrient absorption in your body.
For example, a plate of raw or semi-cooked vegetables that have olive oil or avocado added to the mix is found to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K more effectively. Combining vitamin C with iron-rich foods will enhance the mineral’s absorption. Naturally, our gut health is vital for absorption, as much of that process occurs there. A normal gut contains about 1.5 kilograms of bacteria (that’s trillions of bacteria living inside your gut!), but the majority of that bacterium is the good kind, including lactobacillus and bifidobacterium.
Gut bacteria is recognised for its role in breaking down food molecules and harnessing that energy for storage and usage. Bacteria, in this sense, should be viewed as beneficial. A gut checkup will help you determine if you have enough bacteria in your gut, and if you are lacking, try a high-grade probiotic supplement that will help to increase the good bacteria count.
Everyone’s journey towards living a healthier life is a very personal one, and everyone takes steps in that direction in different ways. By limiting your stress levels, maintaining a wholesome diet high in plant-based foods, and supplementing with high quality probiotics and nutritional supplements, you can improve your nutrient absorption.
In certain disease states, the capacity of nutrients to get in and stay inside the cells may be diminished. Intravenous (IV) nutrient administration helps get those nutrients inside the cells. If cells are repeatedly “flooded” with nutrients, the improvement may be cumulative in their ability to heal, and improve the illness/condition. IV therapy may be more effective for correcting nutrient deficits inside cells, where they are needed. When treating patients with IV nutrition, some patients get progressively better, and after a series of treatments, no longer require therapy. Others need regular injections in order to better control and counteract their medical conditions.
In some cases, continued IV therapy may be necessary because a person’s disease state is too advanced to be reversible, therefore ongoing IV nutritional support is recommended. It is up to you to figure out, healthwise, where or how you can improve in order to encourage better nutrient absorption and place yourself firmly at the front of the line towards better health.
The Star Newspaper, November 27, 2016
Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar