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You are what you absorb

Du bist, was Du absorbierst

Throughout the history of the sport, the greatest bodybuilders have always been picky eaters - maybe not when it came to their fashion sense, but certainly when it came to choosing the absolute best foods to help them achieve their goals.

But what if you're not absorbing all the nutrients from the food you're eating? You can be as pedantic as you want about your diet and count your nutrients down to the gram, but if you suffer from indigestion, it's likely that all the hard-earned money you put in will be eaten up by hidden fees.

John "The Mountain Dog" Meadows has struggled with some digestive system demons that have forced him to become an expert on digestion and if you think digestion isn't cool or not that important, then you need to read this article. I come across an increasing number of bodybuilders who complain of poor digestion.

The fact is that about 10 to 15% of all new clients who come to me have at least two or three base foods that make them feel bloated, gassy or have other uncomfortable symptoms of indigestion.

Digestion is crucial for anyone concerned about their health, and your progress in the gym will stand or fall with your digestion. This article will outline a few simple ways you can improve your digestion and, as a result, your health and overall wellbeing.

A personal story

I am very passionate when it comes to digestion. As some may know, I almost died from an internal illness in 2005.

In short, I suffered from a condition called "Idiopathic Myointimal Hyperplasia of the Intestinal Veins." - A number of veins in the sigmoid loop area of my bowel were diseased and the blood flow was blocked. The veins eventually burst. Luckily, I was in hospital when this happened, so emergency surgery could be performed immediately, without which I would have bled to death.

When I woke up in the intensive care unit, I found out that I no longer had a colon and I was temporarily the proud owner of an artificial bowel outlet. From that point on, I became very interested in learning as much as I could about the digestive system.

Apart from an increased tendency towards dehydration, I have had no real problems over the last three to four years. I attribute this to my persistent pursuit of knowledge in this area and the support of forward thinking medical professionals like Eric Serrano.

The only medication I have to take is Immodium: I take one tablet in the morning and one tablet in the evening and will probably have to do so for the rest of my life. Unlike the unfortunates who suffer from other digestive diseases, I can eat anything I want.

Let's start with the basics.

The intestinal transit time test

Here's a simple test that can show you how well your digestive system is working. It's also called the intestinal transit time test:

  1. Buy yourself some charcoal tablets
  2. Take 5 grams of these on an empty stomach and write down the exact time you take them
  3. Watch out for dark stools when you go to the toilet
  4. If you see dark stools in the toilet, then the time elapsed since taking the charcoal tablets is the duration of the bowel passage

The result has the following meaning:

  • If the intestinal transit time is less than 12 hours, then this is usually an indication that you are not absorbing all the nutrients you have consumed
  • An intestinal transit time between 12 and 24 hours is usually the perfect duration
  • If the intestinal transit time is longer than 24 hours, then the food is staying in your intestines for too long. This can indicate potential problems, as substances that should be excreted can enter the bloodstream - not to mention an increased risk of intestinal disease.

Digest this

Next, let's talk about the structure of your digestive system. You can think of your digestive system as an 8 to 12 meter long fire hose that runs from your mouth to your anus. The mucous membrane that lines your digestive system is replaced every 3 to 5 days.

The basic function of the digestive system is to break down food into small particles that your body's cells can then use for energy, repair, growth, etc. As food passes through your digestive system, it is broken down into amino acids, glucose, fatty acids and glycerol, depending on whether you have eaten protein, carbohydrate or fat.

The frustrating part for many is that they can eat what many would call a perfect diet and still have problems. Simply put, it doesn't matter what you eat if you can't absorb it properly due to indigestion.

The following is something I would like to point out to those who stuff themselves with thousands of calories a day: your body can only cope with a certain amount of food. So let's take a closer look at the entire digestive process from its beginning to its end.

Digestion begins in the brain

Digestion starts in the brain. Remember Pavlov's dog, which is the classic example of conditioning? The Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov rang a little bell and his dog began to drool, knowing that food would follow. What happened here was that the dog's body began to prepare for digestion at the mere thought of food - and the same happens in humans (but here, hopefully, in a socially acceptable way).

On to the mouth

When food enters the mouth, the amylase contained in saliva continues the digestive process by breaking down carbohydrates into maltose. It does this by breaking the bonds between the carbohydrate molecules to produce disaccharides and trisaccharides.

The 5 second ride in the food stirrer

After leaving the mouth, the food passes through the esophagus. The esophagus is the connection between the mouth and the stomach and it usually takes five to six seconds for food to pass from the mouth to the stomach. However, this can also take several minutes if the food has not been chewed properly.

At the lower end of the esophagus is a small valve, also known as the esophageal sphincter. Normally, this should prevent the food and stomach acid contained in the stomach from getting back into the oesophagus. If this is not the case, it can lead to heartburn or even a hiatal hernia.

Further into the atom smasher

Okay, so maybe your stomach isn't an atom smasher, but it does mix and puree food into what's called chyme.

Hydrochloric acid (HCl, also known as stomach acid) starts to break protein chains into smaller pieces. Stomach acid and chyme are both very acidic - you would suffer nasty burns if stomach acid came into direct contact with your skin. The acidic properties of stomach acid also help to sterilize the food by killing microbes that may have made their way into the stomach.

Fortunately, the stomach is lined with a mucous membrane that protects the stomach wall from burns caused by stomach acid. If the stomach lining is not completely intact, it can lead to stomach ulcers, as the stomach acid then literally etches a hole in your stomach. I had a stomach ulcer when I was 20 years old and it was extremely painful. (My ulcer was primarily caused by stress and luckily I learned a few ways that helped me reduce stress, which enabled me to leave my ulcer behind).

Your stomach also produces pepsin, which helps break down proteins, and lipase, which helps break down fats. Even though most of the food is absorbed later, water, some salt and ethyl alcohol can enter the bloodstream directly from the stomach. This could explain the great mystery that I feel the effects of Absolut Mandarin Vodka with Sprite Light immediately.

The food will usually stay in the stomach for two to four hours depending on the meal consumed. As you may know, fiber can slow down this process.

Further into the small intestine

This part of the tube is 5 to 7 meters long. Food is primarily digested in this area, where tiny finger-like folds of the digestive tract called intestinal villi absorb all the nutrients. These intestinal villi and smaller microvilli are part of what makes up your intestinal wall and serves to produce digestive enzymes while also blocking potentially harmful substances from being absorbed.

It is important to note that there are certain foods and medications that can cause your intestinal wall to lose its ability to recognize what it should and should not absorb, which can lead to a condition called pathologically permeable intestinal wall. This pathological permeability of the intestinal wall can lead to many problems, which we will discuss later.

The small intestine consists of several sections:

  • The first 30 centimeters of the small intestine form the duodenum. In general, minerals such as calcium, copper, manganese and magnesium are absorbed in this area. The digestion of many water- and fat-soluble vitamins, as well as the digestion of fat and different types of carbohydrates such as fructose, glucose and galactose, also begin here. If the pH of the stomach is too high (which is a result of too little stomach acid), then these nutrients are not absorbed well.
  • Next comes the jejunum, or empty intestine, which makes up about 40% of the remaining length of the small intestine. The jejunum has small "brushes" that secrete enzymes that help absorb other carbohydrates such as maltose, sucrose and lactose. The digestion process of protein, amino acids and some water-soluble proteins also begins here. This part of the intestine is where most of your bodybuilding nutrition is absorbed.
  • The last and largest part of the small intestine is the ileum, also known as the colon. I know this part of the intestine only too well. When I woke up in the ICU after my ileostomy, this part of the intestine peeked out of my body and greeted me like the monster from Alien. The ileum is the part of the intestine where cholesterol, vitamin B12 and bile salts (which are needed to break down and emulsify fats) are absorbed.

Next stop - Hydration!

The next stop on the journey is the colon and at this point you will see why I am prone to dehydration. Your colon is responsible for absorbing water and the remaining nutrients from the chyme into the bloodstream. This is a crucial step in properly hydrating the body and if you are missing this part of the gut, then like me, you need to pay very close attention to your hydration.

The large intestine also consists of three parts:

  • First comes the ascending part of the colon, which runs up the side of your body. This is the part where the stool begins to form and water is absorbed. If the food passes through this part of the intestine too quickly and not enough water is removed, you will have diarrhea.
  • This is followed by the transverse part of your colon, which runs under your ribs and across your abdomen.
  • Last is the descending part of the colon, which runs down the left side of your body and connects to your rectum, where the stool leaves your body.

Next, we'll look at how to turn your digestive system into a high-performance machine.

A critical step - eliminating barriers blocking digestion and absorption by treating pathological permeable bowel syndrome

The causes and treatment of digestive tract disorders is a very broad topic. Due to time constraints, I will focus primarily on the treatment of a pathologically permeable bowel wall, as this condition can lead to many serious complications. Simply put, we need to remove this barrier to ensure optimal digestion and absorption of nutrients. The strategies you will use for this will also serve to increase your body's digestive capacity.

A pathologically permeable gut wall is a condition in which a damaged gut lining increases the permeability of the gut wall to substances that should not pass from the gut into the bloodstream. Certain things (such as bacteria and other harmful invaders) are no longer blocked by the intestinal wall and other things that should be absorbed are no longer absorbed.

A pathologically permeable intestinal wall is common in irritable bowel diseases such as coeliac disease, Crohn's disease, allergies and many other conditions.

Causes of a pathologically permeable intestinal wall

What causes a pathologically permeable intestinal wall? Medical science has not yet identified a single clear cause, but there are a few things that most doctors agree are contributing factors:

Chronic stress

I've come to the conclusion that stress is one of the causes of pretty much everything. Everything I've read about heart disease points to stress - not cholesterol and saturated fat intake - as the primary trigger, and the same is true for digestive diseases.

When you are constantly exposed to stress, your body begins to slow down its digestion, reducing blood flow to the digestive organs and producing toxic metabolites. The problem is that your body can't tell the difference between "Oh shit, I'm being chased by a rabid wolf" and "Oh shit, another meeting at work". It becomes desensitized and treats all stressors the same.

Bad diet

When you eat junk food, you damage your gut lining. Sugar, man-made fats and processed foods lead to inflammation in the digestive tract. And if you eat too little fiber, the food stays in your digestive tract too long (it takes too long to pass through your intestines), which allows harmful byproducts of digestion to irritate your gut and cause inflammation.

You've probably heard that it's important to maintain the right balance of acids and bases in the digestive tract. This balance can also be affected by your food choices.


You may know someone who has become even more ill because antibiotics have killed off the good gut bacteria along with the bad gut bacteria. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are usually responsible for this.

Something that hard training athletes and bodybuilders should know is that anti-inflammatory drugs (especially non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can wreak havoc. These drugs may not be as harsh on your gut wall, but they do cause damage to the gut lining - sometimes to the point where there is noticeable pain.

The response to this is often to take even higher doses of these drugs to keep the pain at bay and even though non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs block pain and inflammation causing prostaglandins, they also block the prostaglandins that heal - a vicious circle!

Another important fact is that all these drugs can damage the small "brushes" in your small intestine that are responsible for the final phase of carbohydrate digestion.

Lastly, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can interfere with the repair process that your gut lining goes through every three to five days, causing the gut lining to weaken, potentially leading to a permeable gut wall and other permeability issues.


Dysbiosis is the condition described when yeast fungi enter your intestinal wall and damage the aforementioned small brushings. This is due to an imbalance of gut bacteria, which brings us back to the previous cause, as medication can kill off the good gut bacteria that normally keep yeast in check.

In the second part of this article, I will discuss how to determine if you are suffering from a pathologically permeable gut wall and strategies to help you avoid this problem and improve your digestion. Finally, a sample diet plan will show you how to put all these strategies into practice.


From John Meadows

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