Chronic Illness Nutritional Therapies
5 Nutritional Foundations for Optimal Health
June 15, 2020
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We have way more control over our health and wellbeing than we are lead to believe. Proper nutrition is one of our most powerful tools and it’s important to understand how we can leverage it to achieve optimal health. There are five nutritional foundations that are critical to proper function and they should be the focus of any nutritional approach to health.

The five areas of focus in my nutritional approach include:

  • Digestion
  • Blood Sugar Regulation
  • Fatty Acid Balance
  • Mineral Balance
  • Hydration.

If any of these foundations are out of balance or in dysfunction, it will be difficult to achieve optimal health. In this post, we’ll walk through a brief overview of why each of these nutritional foundations is so incredibly important.

Digestion

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Let’s start with digestion as the first of our nutritional foundations. Digestion literally affects every aspect of our health. If our digestive function is not optimal, we can run into all kinds of issues ranging from nutrient deficiencies to hair loss to depression.

You may be surprised to learn that when digestion is functioning properly it is a north to south process and there are many organs involved, more than most people realize. Dysfunction at any point in the journey through our digestive process can produce any number of health issues and make us feel crappy.

Proper Digestive Function

Image Source: Mayo Clinic

The journey begins at the very top with the brain and the nervous system. We take in food with our sense of sight, smell, and hearing (mmm..can you hear that bacon sizzle…), which engages the brain, signaling the rest of our body to prepare to receive food. (1)

When the food enters our mouth, our salivary glands produce saliva which includes salivary enzymes that begin to chemically break down our food while we also mechanically break it down by chewing. These actions turn our food into a substance called bolus, which then moves down the esophagus into the stomach. (1)

Once the bolus enters the stomach it mixes with hydrochloric acid and breaks down further into a fluid called chime. Chyme then enters the small intestine where it is mixed with digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas to help digest fat, protein, and carbohydrate as well as bile produced by the liver by way of the gallbladder that helps emulsify fats. (1)

The small intestine is where the bulk of digestion and absorption of nutrients takes place. The first part of the small intestine is the Jejunum, this is where the chyme is broken down into nutrients that can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Further down the small intestine is the Ileum, which is the longest part of the small intestines, where the nutrients that are left are absorbed. (1)

From here, all that is left is water, some electrolytes like sodium and chloride, and plant fiber. These remains are then passed to the large intestine where most of the water is absorbed leaving the stool for excretion. (1)

Blood Sugar Regulation

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Blood sugar regulation is another incredibly important system that we focus on in the nutritional foundations. If blood sugar regulation is not working optimally, we can not only develop diabetes and other chronic illnesses rooted in metabolic dysfunction, but we’ll feel pretty crappy!

Just like digestion, blood sugar regulation involves way more organs than folks realize. Namely, the interaction between the brain and central nervous system and the peripheral organs referred to as the PAALS including the pancreas, adrenal glands, adipose tissue (body fat), liver, and skeletal muscle.

Blood Sugar Regulation and The PAALS

When blood sugar regulation is functioning optimally all these organs work together to regulate the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood. Too much sugar in the blood gums things up basically, candy coating our internal organs eventually causing chronic illness. Too little, and we are unable to function and can also end up with health issues.

High Blood Glucose

When we eat food that contains sugar or carbohydrates, the pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin. Insulin is a powerful hormone that performs several different functions all centered around removing excess glucose from the blood, shuttling it to other holding tanks within the body for later use. (2)

  • Insulin stimulates cells to take up glucose from the blood. (2)
  • Insulin promotes the storage of excess glucose as glycogen in the liver and skeletal muscle. (2)
  • Insulin promotes the conversion of excess glucose to fat in the liver and adipose tissue (body fat). (2)
Image Source: Scientific American: Nutrition for a Changing World

Low Blood Glucose

When the central nervous system senses that there is not enough glucose in the blood, the body can produce more. There are two main ways the body will produce glucose if the person does not intervene by taking in additional glucose from food. (2)

  1. Pulling from stored glycogen in the liver and skeletal muscles (2)
  2. Converting triglycerides from adipose tissue into glucose (2)

There’s one organ in the PAALS that we haven’t yet mentioned. The adrenal glands. The adrenals are not too heavily involved when blood sugar regulation is operating normally. The adrenals get more involved when there is dysfunction. (2)

For example, if blood sugar rises too quickly in response to a large meal full of refined foods, the pancreas may respond with an overproduction of insulin, drawing too much glucose out of the blood causing a sudden drop in blood glucose. (2)

The adrenal glands operate as an emergency response system and produce epinephrine (adrenalin) and cortisol (stress hormone) to bring blood sugar levels back-up to homeostasis. (2)

Fatty Acid Balance

Fat, it makes you fat right? Nope, as we’ve just covered, it’s actually excess sugar that is stored as fat in order to regulate blood glucose, not dietary fat.

Fat is actually critical to optimal health and is one of the nutritional foundations we will focus on! There are many reasons we want lots of healthy fat in our diet, lets walk through four major ones.

Building Blocks for Cell Membranes

Our cells are literally made of the fat we eat, specifically cholesterol. The membrane of each cell in our body has what’s called the phospholipid bilayer made of the fat (lipids) we eat. (3) Our cells are literally made of the fat we eat, well…the fat we absorb anyway if all is well with digestive function. The lipid bilayer controls the membrane’s fluidity and permeability, acting as a barrier allowing selective passage of certain substances in and out of the cell. (3)

I don’t know about you, but I want to make sure my lipid bilayers are made of good fats and working optimally!

Building-Blocks of Hormones

Cholesterol is also a precursor of vitamin D, adrenal hormones, sex steroid hormones, and bile salts that emulsify and enhance the absorption of fats in the intestine. So we need to be made of good fat in order to use fat and create hormones! (3)

Fat-Soluble Vitamin Absorption

There are several vitamins that are essential for good health and require fat for absorption. These include vitamins A, D, E, and K. These vitamins naturally live in the fat we eat, so when we eat non-fat versions of these fatty foods like dairy, we are getting synthetic versions of these vitamins that the low-fat food products have been fortified with. Only, we’re not getting any fat with them, so we can’t absorb and utilize the synthetic versions either leading to deficiencies. (3)

Sustained Energy

Fat is an extremely effective source of energy. It provides twice as much energy production of carbohydrates. The difference is a slow-burning energy source (fat) vs. a fast-burning energy source (carbs). We actually run on fat when we are born, when we sleep, and when we go long periods of time without eating. (3)

Mineral Balance

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Another important area of focus in nutritional foundations is mineral balance. Minerals are critical to optimal health and essential for various functions in the body from the proper development of teeth, bones, hair, skin, and nerves to the maintenance of normal heart rhythm. Let’s walk through four roles of minerals in a little more detail.

Maintaining Proper Nerve Conduction

Minerals, specifically the electrolyte minerals (calcium, sodium, potassium, chloride, and bicarbonate) play a large role in the conduction of nerve impulse and electrical signals. They carry electrical current, which is the basis for our internal communication system. (4)

Facilitating Nutrient Transfer Across Cell Membranes

Minerals facilitate the transfer of nutrients across cell membranes by way of pumps and channels that are found within the phospholipid bilayer in the cell membrane. For example, the sodium-calcium exchanger is a pump that plays an important role in pushing calcium out of the cells. (4)

Regulating Tissue Growth

Minerals help regulate tissue growth. Specifically, iodine is heavily involved in regulating metabolism and thyroid function as it is the building block of thyroid hormones. Every cell in the body requires thyroid hormone to regulate its metabolism. (4)

Acting as Co-Factors for Enzyme Reactions

Enzymes require minerals to activate them. For example, zinc is a trace mineral that is a co-factor for over 200 enzymes in the body that play a direct role in RNA, DNA, and protein synthesis. Zinc is also a co-factor for enzymes involved in energy metabolism. (4)

Hydration

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The last of the nutritional foundations we will cover is hydration. The human body uses water in all of it’s cells, organs, and tissues to help regulate its temperature and maintain many other functions. We’ll walk through just for of them here.

Waste Removal

Water is critical for removing waste and flushing toxins from the body. Waste removal happens through sweat, urine, and feces and water is required to produce these byproducts and facilitate their removal from the body. (5)

Regulates Body Temperature

Water facilitates the main mechanism for regulation of body temperature. Stored water comes to the surface of our skin when we sweat and as the sweat evaporates, the body cools. (5)

Empower’s the Body’s Natural Healing Process

Water is essential to the body’s ability to heal. Our blood is essentially the main highway within our body. It carries oxygen and nutrients to cells and waste away from cells. Water is what enables our blood to flow, without it, our healing process slows. (5)

Enables the Digestive Process

Water is integral to our digestive process. As we learned above, the bulk of digestion happens in the small intestine. This is where our food goes through hydrolysis (chemical breakdown using water) allowing the absorption of nutrients by breaking them down into smaller molecules for easier absorption. (5)

Water is also the building block for digestive juices like saliva and hydrochloric acid. (5)

There you have it, five nutritional foundations that are critical to optimal health. Our bodies are complex machines with lots of moving parts all working together. As you can see, if any of these major areas are struggling, they can negatively impact each other and prohibit us from living our best lives. Health is made in a nutrient-dense kitchen!

References:

  1. Ogobuiro I, Gonzales J, Tuma F. Physiology, Gastrointestinal. [Updated 2020 Apr 16]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537103/
  2. Hantzidiamantis PJ, Lappin SL. Physiology, Glucose. [Updated 2019 Aug 13]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545201/
  3. de Carvalho, C., & Caramujo, M. J. (2018). The Various Roles of Fatty Acids. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland)23(10), 2583. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules23102583
  4. Maathuis F. J. (2009). Physiological functions of mineral macronutrients. Current opinion in plant biology12(3), 250–258. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbi.2009.04.003
  5. Thornton S. N. (2010). Thirst and hydration: physiology and consequences of dysfunction. Physiology & behavior100(1), 15–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2010.02.026

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About author

Heather Cooan

Heather is a marketing executive turned nutrition counselor, consultant, and educator. Heather is currently a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner and Nutrition Therapy Practitioner candidate. Heather advocates for informed consent, bodily autonomy, and self-directed healthcare. She speaks and writes on nutrition and lifestyle interventions for improved health and wellness. Heather successfully avoided radiation and chemotherapy and healed her body of vulvar cancer utilizing a food-as-medicine approach combined with alternative and conventional interventions. Heather has also put two autoimmune diseases into remission (Hashimoto's and Lichen Sclerosus) and reversed estrogen dominance, insulin resistance, atherosclerosis, and fatty liver through diet and lifestyle change.

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