Healthy Eating may Improve Heart, Behavior and GI symptoms

Jan 17, 2024, 14:23 PM by Department of Pediatrics


About 200 years ago Fanny Fern, a columnist, coined the phrase “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”.  Little did she ever imagine how important that phrase would be as we now understand the important connection of the digestive tract to the rest of the human body.  Parents have to worry about their child’s diet in relation to their heart but they also have to pay attention to their diet in relation to their learning, their emotions, and their overall health.

How does digestion happen?  It begins in the mouth which contains 12 salivary glands. Saliva is almost entirely water but 0.5% is useful enzymes that help breakdown the sugars in carbohydrates.  So the process starts with the mixing of the food and these enzymes passing to the stomach and then mixed with stomach’s acid to the intestines.

Once in the small intestines there is a new supply of enzymes coming from the pancreas through a duct.  The pancreas is not a well-known organ like the heart or lungs but it is essential to life.  The pancreas is a jelly-like organ, banana shaped and, in the adult, about 6 inches long.  This banana shaped organ is found up behind the stomach.  It has two major functions.  First it produces insulin and glucagon which regulates sugar and second it produces the following groups of digestive enzymes: trypsin, lipase and amylase. These help digest cholesterol, proteins and fats.  The insulin and glucagon are transported in the blood stream and the digestive enzymes through the pancreatic duct into the intestine.  This small 6 inch banana can produce about a quart of liquid a day.

Digestive enzymes create chemical reactions that play a key role in breaking down eaten foods so nutrients can be absorbed.  Different digestive enzymes exist to break down different types of foods into amino acids.  If there is a malfunction at any level of enzyme production, it can lead to pancreatic insufficiency and malnutrition. There are numerous levels that can cause insufficiency such as toxic effects of alcohol, genetic defects in the makeup of the enzymes, cystic fibrosis, hereditary pancreatitis, autoimmune causes such as inflammatory bowel disease, obstruction of the duct and many others.

Enzymes can be sensitive to changes in the body.  Certain chemicals can interfere with an enzyme’s ability to cause a chemical reaction reducing their digestive ability. Eating highly processed or high- calorie foods, drinking a lot of alcohol, living a sedentary lifestyle and not getting proper nutrition can all have a negative impact on the pancreas. 

Some of the absorbed amino acids are necessary for building neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine which are associated with behavioral and cognitive function. There are ongoing studies to evaluate how using digestive enzymes can improve behavior and gastrointestinal symptoms in children with autistic behaviors and attention deficit problems. A study by Pearson et al in JAMA has shown improvement in some autistic behaviors when given a specific digestive enzyme. 

So Fanny Fern was probably correct.

by Sally Robinson, MD Clinical Professor
Keeping Kids Healthy
Published 01/2024

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