Our digestive system – the route to optimum health

I’m sure you have all heard the expression, “we are what we eat”, well that’s only partly true because actually, “we are what we absorb”. Only when our digestive system is working properly by breaking down the food we eat into basic molecules of amino acids, fatty acids and simple sugars, can our bodies actually use those building blocks to produce energy and be used to make proteins.

There are so many steps along the way:

1. Digestion (the physical breaking down of the foods).

2. Assimilation (the taking in of the broken down foods as basic simple molecules through our gut wall).

3. Nutrient distribution (the movement of those molecules to where they are needed).

4. Tissue uptake (the movement of the molecules into our cells).

5. Use of those molecules within each cell to make it function, grow, replicate or not.

As all osteopaths and other manual therapists learn, structure governs function, so lets start by looking at the physical structure of the intestinal wall and how that governs the job it has to do.

The digestive Tube

This tube leads from our mouth to our anus with organs attached to it along the way. Although inside our bodies, our digestive tube is constantly exposed to everything we put into our mouths from the outside world. So that’s not only food & drink but also bacteria, yeasts, parasites and viruses. As a consequence, our body needs a really well-functioning immune system to ward off the unwanted microorganisms.

Our body has to be able to identify and sort the “wanted” from the “unwanted”, an amazing task. It has to absorb what it wants and excrete that which is doesn’t want. So remember, the food that we’ve eaten is not strictly part of us until it is taken across the all-important intestinal membranes into our blood and lymphatic system, ready to be transported to our cells.

So let’s look at those membranes…

You can see that the wall itself is folded over and over on itself, like little waves or the woollen loops of a long fluffy carpet. This makes a massive difference to the surface area over which food can be absorbed. This, coupled with the fact that the whole tube measures some 10-15 meters, gives it a surface area that has been measured at 200 times the area of our skin!

Now let’s look at the individual cells of the intestinal wall.

They look like little elongated bricks, packed very closely together without any mortar in between. They have several jobs to do:

1. They secrete an anti-bacterial, mucus covering, to protect themselves. This mucus layer is also where all our beneficial bacteria live. More on that very important topic in  another post.

2. With the help of signals from our immune system and our resident bacteria, the cells allow digested proteins and sugars in and onward, through to the blood stream and fats into our lymphatic system.

3. They recognise unwanted foreign material and keep it out.

4. They release or export the body’s waste products and toxins into the digestive tube for elimination, the reverse of absorption.

These gastrointestinal cells are called enterocytes. They have a tremendously important job to do for the sake of our whole body’s health. A poorly functioning gut lining or membrane can lead to a whole host of problems, so it’s important to know how to look after it. More of this in another post.


The Blue Zones are the name given to four geographical areas in the world, where people live considerably longer then the rest of us, many reaching well into their 100’s. The geographical regions are not particularly relevant, but how they live their lives is.

These groups have been extensively studied by scientists for the secrets of longevity which they may hold. Researchers have found several, common-sense, lifetime habits and support systems in common with these unrelated groups of people.

Dan Buettner’s 20 minute TED lecture explains it all, but I have also summarised it below.

If you want to live a long, fulfilled, pain-free and healthy life…

  1. Move naturally – you don’t “need” the gym or the yoga or the cross fit classes. These are all designed to give us intense bouts of exercise for the time poor individual. But this isn’t best for longevity, so it seems. The human body is designed to move constantly and “naturally” as it would, if it had to catch or grow its food, prepare it from scratch and then eat it. Natural physiological movements like running, walking, jumping, squats, rest periods, climbing, stooping, bending, lifting, carrying, chopping, gardening etc. In other words, keeping our bodies constantly moving doing the necessities of an active daily life. Our lives are so far removed from natural movements (chairs, tables, lifts, cars) it’s no wonder we suffer as a consequence. We have so many time saving but activity-reducing elements in our lives, cars, washing machines, food processors, electric lawn-movers, home deliveries from the supermarket). These have taken away the natural work-load that our bodies should be doing. To combat this we need to improvise within our lifestyle limitations. We can park further away in the car park, walk the stairs, buy a pedometer, stand at our desk, squat every few minutes, get a working treadmill to walk as you work… just keep moving our bodies in ways that nature intended, as much as we can, day after day.
  2. Develop the right outlook – Learn how to rest your mind. Any technique to slow your mind, reduce your adrenaline and cortisol levels, and reduce your body’s inflammatory burden which is taking such a load on our health these days. That may be praying, meditating, taking a siesta, listening to calm music, whatever works for you.
  3. Have purpose – know why you happily get out of bed every single day. What is your purpose in life? Who needs you every day? Never “retire!”
  4. Eat Wisely – Have a little of what you like, like wine for example. Eat a plant-based diet and do this 80% of the time.
  5. Connect – Put the needs of loved ones first. Belong to a group of like-minded healthy friends and have a faith/belief system that supports humanity and a sense of world connectedness.

Can we look at the parts of our life that we can practically implement and make positive changes?

Mark Hyman’s 10 tips for optimum health

Dr Mark Hyman is the current chairman of the Institute of Functional Medicine in America. Here are his ten tips for “boosting your mitochondria”, which means to us, good health and longevity.

1. Eat to balance your blood sugar. (This topic is a book in itself)

2. Eat protein with every meal.

3. Increase your intake of Omega 3 fats (Eat oily fish, nuts & seeds)

4. Eliminate flour products.

5. Find ways to relax and de-stress everyday.

6. Exercise and build muscle.

7. Eat foods with phytonutrients, i.e. fruits & vegetables with lots of different colours.

8. Consider supplements that protect and boost your mitochondria (the fundamental energy-producing parts of each and every cell) like Carnitine, Lipoic Acid and Resveratrol.

9. Avoid environmental toxins, i.e dump the chemicals in your house and go organic.

10. Learn how to detoxify from those toxins.

What are you studying now, Dawn?

As I keep being asked this question, I thought I might say a little about what I am studying.

Officially, I’m studying for my third degree. This time around it’s in “Nutritional Therapy”, which to most of us means “Nutrition”. I will (if I can keep going) get a diploma in 3 years and a degree in 4 years from now. However, despite it’s name, our course is thoroughly founded on the principles of Functional Medicine (FM), which is what I want to explain.

The Institute of Functional Medicine was founded in America where a growing group of doctors are practising a “new” paradigm of medicine. It began way back in 1949 by a double nobel prize winning physician called Linus Pauling. The new paradigm is the belief that it isn’t our genes themselves that cause our health or otherwise, but how those genes are “expressed”. “Gene expression” means how our genes interact with our environment to cause or suppress disease. Dr Pauling firmly believed that one day, we would be able to manipulate or modify the expression of our genes to prevent disease.

Today, functional medicine is a system of medicine which seeks to prevent chronic diseases, those diseases we are so familiar with like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. FM seeks to find the cause of our symptoms because it is believed that  symptoms are the body’s attempt at correcting itself… they should not necessarily be suppressed without understanding what purpose they serve. FM practitioners don’t necessarily group all the symptoms together, give it a name or diagnosis and then prescribe drugs to suppress the symptoms.  Rather, they search for the causes of the symptoms, i.e. which body systems are suffering and how your genes are being affected by your environment. What are you doing to your body that is causing it not to work properly?  Once those processes have been identified, the treatment is to provide the body with what it needs to correct itself and remove any factors that are stopping the body from recovering. Each person is a new case and different to the last, even though the conventional medical diagnosis may be the same. The reason for this is that each person has his or her own unique biochemical makeup which must be treated individually.

FM is about giving the patient treatment choices to help themselves to achieve better health. FM practitioners believe that the body’s systems are a web of connections and to uncover the real causes, one must understand these complicated connections that span across gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, immunological and neurological systems. FM practitioners are therefore not specialists in cardiology, urology, neurology, focusing on just one body part or system as in conventional medicine.

FM works particularly well for preventing and treating chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, ulcerative colitis, arthritis, rather than treating sudden illness or trauma where conventional medicine excels. Disease is not seen as a separate entity which exists alone. Instead, health and disease are seen as points on a continuum between optimal wellness and ill-health. I particularly like this because it has always perplexed and frustrated me that conventional medicine says that you either have arteriosclerosis or you don’t…but surely, the build up of plaques on the inside of your artery walls is a gradual process, occurring slowly and often imperceptibly over decades, eventually reaching a point which requires treatment…either drugs or life saving surgery to open the blockage. Surely, it is better to catch small problems early rather then wait for them to be big problems later on?

I believe that prevention is better then cure and I very much hope that my efforts, in due course, will afford me the privilege of helping people help themselves, sooner rather than later!

Cholesterol…the villian or not?


After a long summer and subsequent return to some serious studying, I have squeezed in a quick post…as it was so near to my heart, if you excuse the pun!

This post is a little more serious than my last and I urge you to find 30 minutes to watch the video.

It came to me as an email from http://www.FunctionalMedicineUniversity, which was the 6 months Functional Medicine Certificate I passed back in June. I acknowledge their excellent advice and rights to share this with you. The video itself is made by American News Channel ABC1, entitled “The Heart of The Matter”. The web page has further videos and references to all the studies.


So what are your views on butter, margarine, sunflower oil, Benecol, cholesterol, the government’s food pyramid, the Mediterranean diet, scientific researchers, the food companies, statins, sugar & carbohydrates and anti-oxidants now?

As the video says, if we are motivated to reduce our risk of heart disease and that of our families and friends, we need to be looking at other suspected culprits, namely (1) Stress (2) Sugar  (3) Inflammation in the body (4) Oxidation in the body. I’m sure I will be learning a lot more about these in months to come, which I will of course share with you.

Is ageing a slippery slope?

You know what? I have been musing this subject for many years on and off. Unconsciously at first, whilst I worked on my patients bodies, now much more consciously. Here is the thought…. Here we are, bustling through life, busy, healthy, fit and well. No real health challenges to mention. Sure, a few annoying symptoms that the GP has got rid of along the way or have gone on their own… then years pass, decades pass, we have children, we get absorbed in being parents and our careers, and time flies by, then BANG! We get sick or we see our friends and family get sick. We go to the doctor and he/she tells us that we have diabetes, or heart failure or osteoporosis, arteriosclerosis, MS, depression, kidney stones, a calcified aorta, degenerative discs in our spines, endometriosis, diverticulitis, cancer, whatever.

But wait! How did that happen? How come, I was fit and well, and now all of a sudden I am told that I have some major problem? Why didn’t somebody tell me about it before I got this bad?

Aah! Now that’s the point! The very crux of the matter! It doesn’t suddenly happen. It’s happening molecule by molecule, cell by cell, organ by organ, right now, day by day, in all our bodies!

I believe we don’t listen to our bodies when they give us, what seems like, inconsequential warning signs, little by little, over the decades. We don’t want to make a fuss and we’re too busy! We don’t stop and think. There isn’t time. The pieces of the jigsaw are never quite put together for us. We can’t see the whole picture of how our body systems and mind are completely intertwined, one affecting another continuously. (But we know it’s fundamentally true). We do not make the short-term connection between what we are doing to our bodies today and the effects those actions will have 20 and 30 years down the road.


For example, we hear our rumbling stomach, pardon our burping or indigestion after a meal, excuse our wind an hour or so later, loosen our waistbands as our abdomen distends and wonder why? There’s no way we’d go to the doctor about that! Not until we get pain of course. Then we might be given painkillers or antacids or Fibrogel for “irritable bowel syndrome”. But what’s that? Well, it’s an irritable bowel of course! But why is it irritable? Well it’s like this, if somebody does something to irritate you, you get irritable. And your bowel is no different. Yes, but what’s going on inside? What happens if we don’t act? Diverticulitis? Ulcers? Ulcerative colitis? Worse?

The same insidious but progressive symptoms happen in other systems of our body. Take the spine for example. When we are young our spines get knocked about a bit! We commonly get strained facet joints and pulled muscles. Our spines adapt pretty well to this and sort of “cope”, often for a long time. Our posture adapts and compensates. We feel a few niggles, aches and pains but they go away or the physical therapist can sort it out in a few treatments. For a while. But for some poor folks, they start getting low back stiffness that doesn’t go away. Then more shrill pain comes from their joints. May be the therapist says they should come for regular treatments. But what has been going on in our spines during this time. Well, I can tell you, the discs have lost water and no longer act as shock absorbers, the facet joints have squashed up together and are rubbing and the muscles which support and move the spine, have wasted. Not good. See how the few small symptoms can progress to the degenerative spine.

One last example (but I could give you many) the cardiovascular system. Research has now shown that it is chronic inflammation in the body which causes arteriosclerosis (narrowing of our arteries). Through life, our arteries get injured due to stress, high blood pressure and irritating molecules (which we eat and drink) like trans fats, additives, alcohol, oxidants. Our body patches up those cracks with a “cholesterol scab”. This will sluff-off in time just like a scab on out skin would. However, this just repeats itself over and over if we keep irritating our artery walls with poor dietary choices and lack of exercise. Inflammation set in. The plaque building mechanism doesn’t get switched off and in time the plaques build in size and number until they eventually block the flow of blood inside the artery. Then the doctor tells us to stop drinking, when all along we’ve been told that a few glasses a night are good for you! Now we have arteriosclerosis and are at risk from stroke and heart attacks.

So what I’m saying is, if we pay closer attention along the way, (and I don’t mean neurotically) we can absolutely prevent a vast majority of “degenerative diseases” with regular screening tests and faster corrective action. Our bodies are programmed to repair, regenerate and renew our cells to ensure that we survive. Whether that “survival” feels like dragging our bodies through our 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s with a string of physical complaints or whether we glide through it, busily getting on with life, contributing to our families and communities with our hard-earned experience… it’s all down to us and our belief systems.

To follow this introduction, my next post will be all about the digestive system. It is fundamental to the optimum function of our whole body and mind. Every cell of our body is made up and functions according to what we put into our mouths every day. I will look at how it is supposed to function and what happens when it goes wrong. Why it goes wrong. I will explore the other organ system diseases we can get because our digestive system is damaged. It’s fascinating!

Invest in yourself

Join me in my discovery! Let’s learn together. Tell me what you think.

Worth mulling over?

I don’t think I need to say much here! Suffice to say, let’s all stop and have a think.

Dalai Lama

When, in our busy day, can we take a moment to stop and put our health first. Would it be learning to eat slowly and thankfully, promoting good hormone release as we eat. Would it be to buy more organic food or food we have grown carefully ourselves? Would it be to stop putting sugar, caffeine and alcohol into our bodies?

Perhaps the money spent on utilising simple preventative health measures like eating a natural diet and avoiding stimulants will save us money, that we, (or the NHS) will inevitably have to spend later on in life, on over the counter medicines, prescription drugs, and the expenses of a compromised lifestyle due to ill-health.

What do you think?


What Are You Drinking?!!!

You're really gonna drink that?!!

You’re really gonna drink that?!!

“What is that green drink”, my patients ask me with a look of horror and disbelief, half concealed by polite respect, all over their faces.

“Good question, everybody always asks,”I reply, smiling.

So here’s the answer to all those good folks who have asked me that very question when they see this “green” drink on my desk at work. And to whom I’ve never really had the time to explain it fully.

Here’s the method and list of ingredients:

Juice (using a juice extractor) of 1 peeled cucumber, 4 sticks celery, 1 un-waxed lemon, 1 inch fresh ginger root, 2 apples.  I juice these so as to extract as much “natural living water” from them as possible.

Once juiced, I put this into in a blender along with 1 or ½ a big avocado, a handful of spinach leaves, a handful of parsley leaves and a peeled pear. I blend these last ingredients because that adds thickness to the drink but more importantly it preserves the fibre, which I have lost by juicing the first set of ingredients.

Blend all together and drink fresh that day, (ok, so I make mine the night before). If you can get organic ingredients, so much the better. I have read that the foods one consumes the most of, should be the ones you buy organically. That makes sense logically.  If you’re going to eat a lot of something then it should be as high a quality as you can afford. I peel the cucumber only because the skin contains most of the pesticide residues. This quantity makes a little less than a litre.

Obviously, I wash all the ingredients thoroughly, as I will be consuming them raw. Tips: Make sure the avocado is properly ripe so that it blends smoothly. Remove the parsley and spinach stalks as they make the juice too “bitty”. Use them in your stir-fry’s instead.

I would use kale if I could get it, (it’s obviously not in demand in the UAE) or watercress, mint, coriander, pak choi or any really dark green leaved vegetable or herb that your palate enjoys. Similarly, you can alter any of the ingredients and quantities depending on your nutritional needs and tastes. My husband drinks his on the way to work in the morning, says it has a kick like a mule and swears it beats a “Red Bull” to get his brain going any day!

Anyway back to the plot….

Why? Is the next burning question in most “normal” peoples heads. That’s a good one and certainly takes a little longer to explain! So here’s why. To be quite honest, I didn’t really know how good it was for me, until I did this little analysis.

Below is a table of major nutrients (in grams) and minerals (in milligrams) per 100g of the food.

Ingredient Ca Fe Mg K Zn Carbs Fats Protein Fibre
Cucumber 14 0.26 11 144 0.2 2.76 0.13 0.69 0.8
Celery 40 0.4 11 287 0.13 3.65 0.14 0.75 1.7
Lemon 26 0.6 8 138 0.06 9.32 0.3 1.1 2.8
Ginger 116 11.52 184 1343 4.72 70.97 5.95 9.12 12.5
Apple 7 0.18 5 115 0.04 15.25 0.36 0.19 2.7
Avocado 11 1.02 39 599 0.42 7.39 15.32 1.98 5
Spinach 99 2.71 79 558 0.53 3.5 0.35 2.86 2.7
Parsley 130 6.2 50 554 1.07 6.33 0.79 2.97 3.3
Pear 11 0.25 6 125 0.12 15.11 0.4 0.39 2.4

[Ca=Calcium, Fe=Iron, Mg=Magnesium, K=Potassium, Zn=Zinc.]

So, that’s all well and good but how many of the nutrients would I actually be drinking and what would that supply me with in terms of my nutritional requirements for that day, assuming that my gut is working well and I am absorbing the nutrients properly.

This thought takes me off on a tangent. How many of us know that we are consuming enough nutrients for our requirements. Very few, I suspect.  It takes a lot of work to calculate it all. Sure, we have rough guidelines, which help, and user-friendly marketing slogans like “eat a rainbow of coloured vegetables each day”. But for those of us who are sick, perhaps we should be working out our requirements to get ourselves better, rather than reluctantly taking the medications that our doctors prescribe. I can’t tell you the number of times patients have told me that they don’t really want to take their doctors prescription but they don’t know what else to do.  “Put the right fuel or building blocks into you body”, I say, “and your body will do the rest for you”.

My weightings came out like this and here’s the maths:

Ingredient      Ca      Fe     Mg        K    Zn      Carbs     Fats     Protein       Fibre










370g Celery










100g Lemon










60g Ginger










360g Apple










150g Avocado










60g Spinach










30g Parsley










160g Pear



























% RDA’s







Sure, I may be losing some nutritional value due to juicing the food and throwing away  (or composting) the pulp, but it’s a rough calculation. Not bad for breakfast instead of cereal, which is so depleted of nutrients in the processing that they have to add them back in at the end!

Now I can see that a lot (of those sampled) of my RDA’s are being met with this one drink, let alone the whole improved biochemistry one would get along with it. But more about that in a functional medicine blog late in the year.

We could also look, just for a taster, at what else I will be getting with each ingredient.

Cucumber is an excellent source of silica, which is a trace mineral important for our connective tissue. Cucumber also contains two compounds, Ascorbic acid and Caffeic acid which helps prevent water retention.

Celery is an excellent source of Vit. C and a good source of potassium, folic acid, Vit. B1 and B6. Celery contains phytochemicals like coumarins which have been shown to prevent cancer and enhance the activity of certain white blood cells. Coumarin compounds also tone the vascular system, lower blood pressure and may help migraines. Celery is rich in potassium and sodium and hence is great drunk after a workout to replace these essential electrolytes lost in sweat. Studies show it helps rheumatic pains, may help detoxify and lower cholesterol.

Lemon. We all know lemons are excellent sources of Vit. C, but additionally they are high in Vit. B6, potassium, folic acid, flavonoids and the important phytochemical limonene which is currently being trialed to dissolve gallstones and is showing great promise in anti cancer properties. Limonene is most abundant in the white flesh under then skin, hence why I juice the whole lemon.

Ginger is good for calming the digestive system, alleviating gas and as an intestinal antispasmodic, hence preventing diarrhea & constipation. It is an antioxidant and helps with motion sickness. It contains potent anti-inflammatory compounds called gingerols, which helps ease the pain of arthritic joints if taken regularly. Gingerols also inhibit the inflammatory messengers of the immune system, thereby reducing inflammation.

Apple. In an analysis of more than 85 studies, apple consumption was shown to be consistently associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, asthma and type-2 diabetes, perhaps due to its high amounts of flavonoids like quercetin. We all know apples are high in pectin which is a soluble fibre helping to push waste through the intestines. Apples are also high in Vit. C and a good source of potassium. The skin is high in phytochemicals like ellagic acid and flavonoids like quercetin. Phytochemicals are chemical compounds found in plants which have beneficial effects, like antioxidants, but phytochemicals are not essential nutrients in themselves.

Avocado. The good monounsaturated fats in avocado’s include oleic acid and linoleic acid helping to balance cholesterol levels. They are rich in potassium Vit. E, B Vitamins and fibre. One avocado has the same potassium content as 2-3 bananas.

Spinach is very nutrient dense. It is an excellent source of Vit. K (which stops your blood clotting), carotenes, Vit. C, folic acid, manganese, magnesium, iron, Vit. B1, B2, B6 and Vit. E. It contains twice as much iron as most other greens. It is very alkalizing, helping to regulate body pH. It is one of the richest sources of lutein, making it important for healthy eye-sight and preventing macular degeneration and cataracts. It is a strong protector against cancer. Researchers have found that spinach contains 13 different flavonoid compounds that function as antioxidants and anticancer agents.

Parsley is high in chlorophyll and carotenes. It is high in Vit. C, folic acid and iron. It is also a good source of magnesium, potassium, calcium and zinc.

Pears are high in fibre. Actually, they have more pectin in them than apples. They are high in Vit. C and copper which is good at helping to prevent heart arrhythmia, Vit. B2, Vit. E and potassium.

Way back in biology lessons, I was taught the Krebs cycle. It’s actually a 3-part cycle, each part of the cog driving the next, whereby carbohydrates, fats and proteins are broken down to their constituent elements in the mitochondria in each and every cell of our body. From these chemical processes, we derive ALL our energy to make every cell in our body function and survive.  More recently, I learnt that for this amazing process to happen, we need certain chemicals, enzymes and vitamins to aid the processes of cellular breakdown.

They are, Carnitine, B1, B2, B3, B5, Lipoate, Cysteine, Iron, Sulphur, Magnesium, Manganese, Co-enzyme Q10, Lipoic acid, Vit C, Copper, Selenium and Glutathione. Working out which foods contain the most amounts of these chemicals, as I said earlier, will be my next job.

Dawn Rowland

UK Registered Osteopath, (currently studying functional medicine)

BSc (Hons), BSc (OST).

Abu Dhabi, UAE.

056 2121 676.