How to Increase Nutrient Absorption
Nutrient absorption is a crucial aspect of maintaining optimal health and providing the necessary vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients. In this article, we'll explore the various stages of digestion, the significance of gut health for nutrient absorption, and how to increase nutrient absorption for overall well-being.
The Digestive Process
The digestive process starts in the mouth, where food is broken down into smaller particles by chewing and mixing with saliva. Salivary amylase, an enzyme present in saliva, begins the breakdown of carbohydrates. This early stage sets the foundation for effective nutrient extraction later in the digestive journey.
As food travels through your esophagus and into your stomach, the cells in your stomach release acid to break down the food. This stomach acid is particularly important for killing any harmful bacteria from your food as well. Imbalances in the levels of stomach acid may cause conditions like bacterial overgrowth, acid reflux, and heartburn.
As food travels through the GI tract, nutrients are absorbed at different points. The small intestine is the primary site for absorption of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Your small intestine pushes food along its nearly 22-foot long canal using wave-like muscle movements. The small intestine is where your pancreas, gallbladder, and liver release more digestive juices, bile, and enzymes to further breakdown your food for proper absorption into the bloodstream. Finally, the colon is responsible for absorbing water, digesting fibers, and processing waste to be eliminated through the stool.
Gut Health and Nutrient Absorption
The health of your gut plays a pivotal role in overall well-being and nutrient absorption. Let’s review a few conditions that may negatively affect nutrient absorption.
Low Stomach Acid
Adequate stomach acid is essential for breaking down food and preparing it for further digestion in the intestines. Low stomach acid may particularly affect the absorption of minerals, like calcium, magnesium, and iron. People with low stomach acid are also more likely to be deficient in vitamin B12. This is because adequate stomach acid is required for your body to effectively absorb this vitamin. Furthermore, individuals taking medications to lower stomach acid like omeprazole (Prilosec) or ranitidine (Zantac) are at an even greater risk of vitamin b12 deficiency (1). If you suspect low stomach acid, consider trying our digestive enzymes with betaine hydrochloride (the main component of stomach acid) with meals.
Your gallbladder plays a significant role in digestion by storing and releasing bile—a substance needed for fat digestion and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Gallstones are hardened deposits that can form in the gallbladder, affecting bile flow. Gallstones may prevent or reduce the release of bile, leading to inefficient fat digestion and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K). In cases where gallstones or inflammation become severe, the gallbladder may need to be removed. This procedure can alter the dynamics of bile release and also affect nutrient absorption.
Bitter foods and herbal bitters are known for their ability to stimulate the production of bile. Bile, stimulated by bitter foods, emulsifies fats, breaking them down into smaller particles for better absorption. When fat is better absorbed via bile, the body can then properly absorb fat-soluble vitamins.
Bitter foods to include in your diet include:
- Dandelion greens
- Gentian root (often taken as a supplement or tea)
Including bitter foods in your diet or taking an herbal bitter supplement before meals may support better digestion and nutrient absorption.
Your gut bacteria has a bidirectional relationship with vitamins and minerals. For example, certain nutrients can affect the diversity and composition of your gut microbiome. On the other hand, gut bacteria can influence nutrient absorption and even produce essential vitamins (like vitamin K and biotin).
In fact, one large study estimated that gut bacteria produce up to 65 percent of eight essential B-vitamins (2).
Dysbiosis is when there is an imbalance of gut bacteria. This can cause many other problems downstream, but it can also negatively affect nutrient absorption. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains while limiting added sugar can support the growth of healthy gut bacteria. We also recommend one of our most commonly used probiotics, MegaSporeBiotic. Read more about our favorite soil-based probiotic.
Synergistic Nutrient Absorption
Certain nutrients enhance each other's absorption and effectiveness.
For example, vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron. If you want to increase iron or ferritin levels, pairing an iron-rich food with a source of vitamin C (like citrus or tomatoes) will optimize iron absorption and transport.
Furthermore, Vitamin D3 and vitamin K2 are crucial for bone health, as they work together to regulate calcium metabolism and direct calcium into the bones instead of the arteries. This is why we include vitamin K2 in our vitamin D drops.
Key Takeaways: How to Increase Nutrient Absorption
In order to increase nutrient absorption, it’s essential to optimize each step of digestion. Properly chewing your food, supporting healthy stomach acid levels, promoting bile production with bitters, and fueling your gut bacteria with fiber-rich foods all work together to optimize nutrient absorption. Plus, some nutrients work better when eaten together, like vitamin C and iron-rich foods, and vitamin D and K2.
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IBS Functional Medicine
A functional medicine plan for IBS finds the root causes of your symptoms and may include interventions like a low-FODMAP diet, treating bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), using probiotics, and targeted lifestyle changes.