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How Well Is Your Body Absorbing Nutrients?

Stumped and beyond frustrated at why you’re not losing those last few pounds?

Have you changed your eating habits but still experience unwanted digestive symptoms? Maybe you're simply taking a genuine interest in your health for 2015 and want to make sure you're getting the most out of your dietary efforts.

Whatever your current reason or starting place, it's important to know the factors that affect our bodies' ability to absorb the nutrients we need. Shockingly, many of the factors that impede absorption include things we do or consume on a daily basis. The result? We're not running on all cylinders, and our metabolisms are attempting to operate in a chronically impaired state.

Check out these seven factors that could be impacting your body’s ability to absorb nutrients, and read what you can do to get your food's full nutritional benefit!

Our Medications

Today approximately 70% of Americans take at least one prescription drug, and 20% of us take over five prescription medications. From antidepressants to antibiotics, opioids to oral contraception, proton pump inhibitors to statins, antihypertensives to insulin, their commonality desensitizes us to an underappreciated truth: these drugs have inevitable side effects. 

Medications generally don’t impact just a particular symptom or single body function. Our physiology, as interconnected as its processes are, make that prospect nearly impossible. While I’m by no means encouraging anyone to quit their current medications, it’s important to understand how they impact nutrient levels, particularly if they are long-term prescriptions.

For example, statins and oral contraceptives (two very common medications) both greatly impact specific nutrient levels. It is known that statins significantly decrease our natural stores of CoQ10 as well as fat-soluble vitamins. Yet, few people hear this or receive nutritional guidance when they’re prescribed this medication. Supplementing with high-quality CoQ10, omega-3 fish oils, and a daily multivitamin may be beneficial for those who take these drugs. 

Oral contraceptives have been shown to decrease B-vitamin levels, vitamin C, magnesium, and other important nutrients. Women taking oral contraceptives should strongly consider supplementing with a high-quality multivitamin to ensure optimal levels of these nutrients are maintained. Long story short, you could be eating very well and living a healthy lifestyle, but the medication you’re taking may be working against your body’s ability to absorb and utilize key nutrients.

If you’re on a prescription drug of any kind, it’s important to discuss with your physician the nutrient needs associated with the particular medication. Ask your doctor whether the drug you are on has been shown to reduce absorption of particular nutrients or otherwise increases the need for any specific nutrient(s).

The S.A.D. Diet

The Standard American Diet, as most of us are well aware, is anything but nutrient-dense. It’s calorie- or energy-dense, definitely, but just because many Americans consume a high quantity of calories doesn’t mean they’re meeting their nutrient needs for the day. 

Our grocery shelves are stocked with manufactured, processed foods - most of which had the majority of nutrients stripped from their original ingredients. Some of those foods have been “fortified” or have nutrients (often low-quality) added back in, but the end product is nowhere near as nutrient-rich as the original components once were (e.g. the grains in cereal products). 

Most people don’t practice the healthy way of eating, but many of them nonetheless believe they’re making healthy choices. Those of us who eat a conventionally suggested diet still lack nutrients and fail to gain the full benefits from our food. Current farming and agricultural practices, for instance, are not what they used to be. Soils are often depleted of their traditional mineral content. Likewise, in order to produce large yields for produce and livestock, new methods are often used that lower the full nutrient value of even “healthy foods.” 

The addition of herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics and growth hormones as well as inhumane or unnatural living and growing conditions all greatly impact the quality of the end food product. How a fruit, vegetable, plant or animal is raised determines its nutrient density - all of which then impact the level of nutrients we receive and absorb. 

Help your body receive optimal input of vitamins, minerals and healthy fats from the food you eat by choosing organic produce (especially the dirty dozen), pasture-raised/grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free poultry and meats, and cage-free eggs. 

Chronic Stress

No, it’s not just in your head. When you’re stressed out, your body does physically feel those negative effects as well - digestive tract included. Sources of stress could be mental/emotional such as conflict in relationships with family and friends, physiological stress (e.g. illness, infections, etc.), environmental stress (e.g. toxins, cleaning agents, fluorescent lighting, electronic screens, etc.), or physical stress (e.g. over- or improper exercising). 

All of these types of stress impact our bodies. Over time, when stress isn’t managed effectively, it will start to hinder other systems in the body. For example, chronic stress has been shown to negatively impact hormone balance, immune function, musculoskeletal health, and even digestive health. 

Stress of any kind can actually shut down the digestive tract, leading to inflammation, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, and a slew of other negative symptoms. Throwing your digestive tract out of whack will surely impact how well your body absorbs nutrients from foods, which may help explain why you’re more prone to allergies, eczema, other skin irritations, gas, bloating, and mental fog when you’re under serious and/or continual stress. 

While we cannot eliminate all of the stress in our lives, we can certainly practice better management of it. Meditation, deep breathing, yoga, leisurely walks, and effective communication can all help us relax in the moment and reduce our stress levels. Adopt these lifestyle behaviors today, and you’ll likely reap better nutritional benefits from your diet. 

Food Allergies and Sensitivities

While food allergies are more obvious, food sensitivities often go unnoticed for quite some time. When we consume a food that our body cannot tolerate, it sets off a chain reaction. The food is not digested properly, nutrient absorption is hindered, our stomach lining will begin to deconstruct (over time perhaps resulting in “leaky gut”), all leading to inflammation and the unpleasant symptoms you feel moments to hours after eating that particular food. 

In the midst of this havoc, you body unsurprisingly doesn’t absorb nutrients well. For instance, allergies to milk and nuts are both very common. When someone with an allergy or sensitivity consumes one of these foods, not only does it start to break down his/her gut health, but that person also doesn’t utilize the healthy fats in those foods and doesn’t effectively absorb the vitamins and minerals.

Best practices to ensure the food you’re eating isn’t harmful for your individual health include food allergy testing and food sensitivity assessments, keeping track of the foods you eat and how you feel after consumption (e.g. bloating, gassiness, headaches, skin irritations), and rotating so that you eat them at most once every 3-4 days.

A Low-Fat Diet

For decades we have been miseducated on the importance of a low-fat diet. Cutting out dietary fat, specifically healthy and natural forms of fat, actually impairs our health in numerous ways.

In other articles, we’ve discussed the importance of healthy fats in allowing our bodies to burn our (unwanted) fat stores and decrease our overall body fat %. We’ve also discussed how fat is imperative for good brain health, stable mood, and blood sugar balance.

Add to that list of benefits this key point: healthy fats in our diet are necessary in order for a multitude of nutrients to be absorbed in our bodies.

There are two kinds of vitamins - water soluble, and fat soluble. Fat soluble vitamins need fat present in order to be absorbed and function optimally in the body. Vitamins A, D, E, and K all fall into the fat-soluble category. In keeping with that point, the skim milk we’ve been encouraged to drink for the past fifty years actually isn't as beneficial as a 2% or whole milk. The natural fats that are found in milk help our bodies also receive the benefits from vitamin D.

The two more appropriate considerations for dietary fat intake include increasing omega-3s, and decreasing omega-6s and trans-fats. How do you ensure you are getting enough fat in your diet, and the right type? Generally speaking, about 30% of our daily caloric needs should come from healthy fats (mono-unsaturated fats and saturated fats). Hormone-free, antibiotic free grass-fed meat products are a great source of healthy omega-3 fats, and by choosing a more organic meat variety you can also opt to get the 80/20 ground beef rather than 90/10, to increase the natural fat percentage in your day. Other great sources of healthy fats include: wild-caught fish, full-fat dairy products (i.e. full-fat milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, cheese), eggs WITH the yolk, nitrate-free bacon, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, nut butters, and even avocados!

Alcohol Intake

Although we might enjoy hearing that a glass of red wine can be good for us, the majority of alcohol's effects on the body are not beneficial for health. For one, alcohol tends to inhibit nutrient absorption.

When we consume alcohol, our bodies actually undergo quite the process in digesting, processing, and metabolizing it. Not only does it dehydrate us (leading to headache, fatigue, etc.), it disrupts our blood sugar regulation as well as our appetite and hunger hormones. It also disrupts our metabolism of certain nutrients.

Among the nutrients at risk include Vitamin A, which is an important fat-soluble vitamin that helps us see in the dark. It has been shown to be especially deficient in heavy drinkers and alcoholics. In addition, magnesium - a crucial mineral - is depleted after consumption of alcohol. This nutrient is already at deficient levels for a large majority of the population. For regular or binge drinkers, decreasing this amount even further can negatively impact muscle, brain, liver, and vascular function. Those early morning leg cramps and morning-after headaches are not just from lack of water the night before. Magnesium depletion is in large part responsible for those symptoms.

Completely abstaining from alcohol offers the best health impacts, even if that choice probably isn't realistic for most people. Therefore, knowing how to classify a “drink” or “serving” is important, as is practicing moderation and healthy “happy hour” behaviors.

Simple Age

The truth is, we can control many of the factors that affect how well our bodies absorb nutrients. Age, however, is unfortunately something we obviously do not have any control over.

That said, there is plenty we can do to help our bodies age healthily. It starts with maintaining good gut health.

As we age, our digestion changes. The chemical in our stomachs that helps us break down foods, Hydrchloric acid (HCl), generally starts to naturally decrease. Why does this matter? It's the acid in the stomach that helps break down food, keep a sterile environment in the gut, kills off harmful bacteria, AND helps aid absorption of important nutrients such as amino acids from protein, vitamin C, folate, iron, calcium, and beta-carotene.

If/when HCl starts to decrease in the stomach, digestion doesn't properly function, and the nutrients in our foods are not as readily broken down and absorbed. Contrary to what people think, heartburn, bloating, and indigestion are actually symptoms of not enough HCl (stomach acid) rather than excess stomach acid!

With each passing year, it's in our best interest to be mindful of the things we can do to help our overall health and digestion, noting signs that something might be off rather than just chalking up changes to the "inevitabilities" of aging. Knowing your lab values, supplementing with HCl, and working with a health professional could greatly benefit your ability to absorb nutrients and to see the health and body composition changes you’re aiming for.

Do any of the above factors apply to you? Would you like to know more about the factors behind optimum nutrient absorption? Talk with one our registered dietitians today. 

In health, Becca Hurt, MS, RD, Assistant Program Manager of Life Time Weight Loss

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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