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?

Are you carbohydrate intolerant or resistant?

This post follows on the first of Mark Hyman’s tips on optimum health. Point number one… “eat to balance your blood sugar”. If you don’t understand this, but want to, please find 15 minutes to watch this video from Professor Tim Noakes. He is a South African professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town.

His video is entertaining and massively informative. Look out for the part where he says that “Nutrition is a critical determinant of health and he believes 80% of chronic diseases are nutrition dependent”.

Carbohydrate intolerance is about the body’s inability to store carbohydrates in muscle tissue, ready to burn off, instead it stores them in fat tissue. This initiates a “hibernation response” in the body’s processes whereby we store more fat, take less exercise and eat more. Diabetes and metabolic syndrome are the ultimate consequences of this.

Listen out for the list of common symptoms he completed cured himself of. It’s very encouraging.

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.

Sun Creams…what to believe?


Well, what is a girl supposed to do? What should a mother be doing for her children?

Doesn’t it just frustrate you to read one article advocating sun creams and another researcher quoting quite the opposite and a third saying that those of us who live in northern latitudes have a chronic deficiency in Vitamin D because of lack of sun exposure.

Who are we supposed to believe?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 5-15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure a few times a week is all that’s required to maintain healthy vitamin D levels.

I guess my common sense approach (in an ideal world) would be to build up your (and your children’s) exposure gradually throughout the season to fulfil your Vitamin D requirements. If you have to stay out longer than that, then try to come in before you go red. If you have to stay out yet longer, then put on non-toxic  sun creams and after that cover up or go inside!

The EWG Guide to Sunscreens 2013 is full of research and product information.

Access the guide here:


Here are some top-rated sun care products for adults and kids:

  • Green Screen D Organic Sunscreen, Original, SPF 35
  • Kiss My Face Natural Mineral Sunscreen with Hydresia, SPF 40
  • Aubrey Organics Natural Sun Sunscreen, Green Tea, SPF 30+
  • Aubrey Organics Natural Sun Sport Stick Sunscreen, SPF 30+
  • Releve’ Organic Skincare by Emerald Essentials Sun-Lite Sunscreen, SPF 20
  • Badger Baby Sunscreen Cream, SPF 30
  • Seventh Generation Wee Generation Baby Sunscreen, SPF 30
  • Moisturising Sunscreen SPF30. Neal’s Yard Remedies.
  • SPF40 Antioxidant Infused Sunscreen Day Cream, Supergloop!
  • Sun Screen SPF40, Herbline Essentials.

What you don’t want to be buying and putting on your children are chemicals like:

  • Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate or “retinol”): Linked to increased cancer cell growth.
  • Oxybenzone: Hormone disrupter—experts caution against using it on children.
  • Powder or spray mineral-based sunscreens (usually on ingredient label as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide): These ingredients are typically safe in lotion form, but can cause internal damage if inhaled.

If only we were as concerned with how our “insides” look as much as our “outsides”!


Have you ever considered how long we all spend “grooming” our hair, shaving our faces or bodies, washing & showering, applying creams, make-up & hair products? How long? Half an hour both morning and night, may be more? How much time do we spend buying clothes and dressing ourselves carefully? What’s the total time per day? Our society places massive emphasis on looking good. It’s part of human nature that we want to feel good about ourselves, feel confident in how we look. There is nothing wrong with that. I’m not criticising it!

However, my next question is this. How much time do we spend thinking of how to make our insides look and feel good? How much time per day do we think about what we put in our mouths and the effect it has on our bodies?

I think the reason why the amounts of times are so mis-matched is very simple. We see the outsides all the time but we never get to see the insides (unless we are gastro-enterologists). If we could see our insides, I bet we would give it a lot more thought and consideration.

So I want to share my learnings. It’s time people were privy to seeing what our insides look like. We want to know that our face creams are making us look younger. Don’t we similarly want to see that the foods we are consuming are contributing to our longevity, not auto-immune diseases, cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and the like.

For me, seeing is believing. Knowing isn’t knowing until you have experiences something.

Over the next few weeks, I would like explain how our foods cause this damage to our bodies, how they cause irritation to the delicate lining of our stomachs and intestines which in turn progresses to inflammation. Unresolved inflammation eventually causes the chronic (and preventable) diseases, now so prevalent in our western societies.


My “Red Juice”

This is my “energy giving juice,” as it comes from a selection of root vegetables and an apple. There are about 350 calories in it. Drink a small glass of it whenever you need a boost or crave something sweet.

My sweet treat!

My sweet treat!

I call it my red juice, for obvious reasons, but without the beetroot, it would be orange in colour. What I’m trying to do is consume as many of the colours of the rainbow each and every day, combining the vegetables as I like. This is a nice and easy guarantee of getting the range of nutrients we all need.

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is your best bet for preventing every chronic disease. The evidence in support of this recommendation is so strong it has been endorsed by U.S. and U.K government health agencies and by virtually every major medical organisation, including the American Cancer Society. So don’t just take my word for it!

Here is a link to a TED lecture presented by an American physician who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She deteoriated to the point of living in a wheelchair, but later recovered her health by eating, as recommended, as rainbow of coloured whole foods and a paleo diet. Just click on it when you have 20 minutes.


The substances which protect us against our diseases found in these fruits and vegetables, are phytochemicals. They include pigments such as carotenes, chlorophyll and flavonoids, also dietary fibre, enzymes and vitamin-like compounds. If you can consume these foods raw, you will preserve the enzymes (so helpful for easy digestion and maximum absorption), that’s why people have taken to juicing.

Carotenes act as anti-oxidants and enhance our immune systems. Flanonoids act as anti-oxidants, have anti-tumor effects and also enhance our immune systems. Limonoids enhance detoxification and block carcinogens. Chlorophyll may stimulate haemoglobin and red blood cell production.

Here are a few examples of foods in each colour category:

Red – Beetroot, tomatoes, red pepper, strawberries, raspberries, red currents, cherries, red grapefruit, watermelon.

Yellow – Yellow pepper, lemons, banana, pears, melons, apples, yellow grapefruit.

Orange – Papaya, mango, orange pepper, carrots, Sharon Fruit, pumpkin, squash, oranges, apricots, sweet potato, yams,

Green – All green veggies & leaves, kiwi, avocado, limes…the list is endless.

Blue/Black – Blackberries, blue berries, purple cabbage, plums, aubergines, red cabbage.

Anyway, back to the method. Wash thoroughly and juice 2 carrots, 1 beetroot, half a sweet potato, a lemon or a lime, a chunk of ginger (size to your liking) and an apple if you want extra sweetness. That’s it. Drink in small amounts as you need to.

I did look to do a mineral analysis on this juice, but the mineral content didn’t look that impressive. The vitamin values, however, were more significant. For example, this juice will provide you with well over the Vitamin A you need for a day. Also, least 50 % of Vit. C, 70% of B6, 50% of folate, 50% of B5, 25% of manganese we need each day.

Beetroots are an excellent source of folic acid, fibre, manganese and potassium. They significantly help the liver in it’s detoxification functions. The pigment betacyanin gives it it’s vibrant colour and is a powerful anti-cancer fighting agent. Beetroot fibre (not found in the juice of course) has a good effect on bowel function and cholesterol levels. It raises the levels of anti-oxidants enzymes, specifically, gluthathione peroxidase and glutathione S-transferase, as well as increasing the number of white blood cells responsible for detecting and eliminating abnormal cells. In a study of patients with stomach cancer, beet juice was found to be a potent inhibitor of the formation of nitrosamines (cancer-causing compounds ingested as nitrates when we eat smoked or cured meats (look on the labels of processed meats, they all have nitrates and nitrites added as preservatives). Beetroot also inhibit cell mutations caused by theses nitrates.

Carrots provide the highest source of pro-vitamin A carotenes. Two carrots provide roughly four times the RDA of Vitamin A. They also provide excellent levels of Vitamin K, biotin, Vitamin C, B6, B1 and potassium. They are high in anti-oxidants. They contain beta-carotene which we all know helps our night vision and similarly provide protection against macular degeneration and the development of senile cataracts.

Sweet potato’s contain a unique storage protein with very high anti-oxidant properties. Generally, the darker the flesh, the more caroteines they contain. The help to stabilise blood sugars and improve the body’s response to insulin and and are hence called “anti-diabetic”. They are high in Vitamin C, Vit A, B6 manganese, copper. biotin, B5, B2 and fibre.