Nutrient absorption

By Jill Levy

Whether you go to great lengths to ensure that your diet includes all the essential nutrients you need, or you choose to take quality supplements most days to further boost your intake, the last thing you want is to miss the opportunity to actually absorb these nutrients.

Nutrient absorption is a key, and often overlooked, aspect of general health. After all, what good will it do you if you consume all the right vitamins, minerals, amino acids and so on — yet your body can’t utilize them?

Below we’ll look at simple steps you can take to increase your absorption of nutrients, and therefore to potentially benefit more from a healthy diet and supplement program.

Why Is Nutrient Absorption Important?

Eating a balanced, whole foods-based diet might make you think you’re the pinnacle of health, but if those same great foods are unabsorbed, then even an ideal diet likely won’t be enough to provide all the nutrition you need. 

Unfortunately, proper nutrient absorption may be a growing concern, especially among the elderly, and even those dealing with unrelenting stress. 

Some experts believe that our modern day food supply may also have lower concentrations of key nutrients compared to in the past. Soil depletion, monoculture farming systems and use of pesticides may all contribute to nutrient absorption or the lack thereof.

The result is that your diet — even if generally healthy and full of foods like fruits and vegetables— may not be providing you with optimal amounts of some nutrients, therefore absorbing as much as possible is key.

5 Ways to Improve Nutrient Absorption

Absorption refers to the act or process of absorbing or assimilating something. When we talk about nutrient absorption, we’re referring to assimilation of substances like vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and amino acids into the bloodstream and cells, or across tissues and organs. 

Overall, absorption in humans is complex and involves many types of enzymes, plus saliva, acid, bile and more. Most nutrient absorption occurs inside the wall (mucosa) of the small intestine.

Normally, nutrients from foods and supplements pass through the mucosa of the small intestine and into the blood vessels by diffusion or transport, where they are carried elsewhere as needed.

What helps with nutrient absorption? Here are five things you can do to improve your body’s ability to absorb the nutrients you consume:

1. Support the growth of probiotics (“good bacteria”) in your gut

Probiotic bacteria play a role in absorption of nutrients. You can support the growth of “good guy” bacteria in your gut by regularly eating fermented foods (such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt and kefir) and/or taking a probiotic supplement.

It’s also smart to eat fiber/prebiotic foods. Foods high in dietary fiber, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and legumes, help to “feed” healthy bacteria in the gut. These are called “prebiotics,” and they are critical for helping probiotics to survive and do their job.

2. Combine the right foods

When some nutrients are paired together they work cohesively to help improve absorption, such as by breaking down nutrients into forms that the body can more easily absorb. Your intestine also absorbs certain vitamins best when they’re paired with a fat source.

Some of the best food combinations for nutrient absorption include:

  • iron + vitamin C
  • fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, K, and E) + healthy sources of fats
  • vitamin D + calcium
  • certain antioxidants + healthy fats

Combining plant foods that contain different types of amino acids (which form protein) is also helpful for making sure you get enough of all kinds.

Need some ideas for ideal nutrient pairings? Try pairing these foods together:

  • Leafy greens (like spinach, kale, etc.) with peppers or berries
  • Eggs with sweet potatoes or wilted greens
  • Olive oil with herbs and veggies
  • Avocado with kale or broccoli
  • Nuts/seeds with oranges, berries or cherries
  • Beans and rice
  • Turmeric and black pepper

When it comes to taking supplements, the same pairings can be beneficial, so consider pairing vitamin C with iron and/or taking a multivitamin supplement with a meal that contains some fat (such as nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut or olive oil).

3. Chew thoroughly and eat slowly

Giving yourself time to slowly, calmly eat and to chew your food adequately helps to release enzymes that are an essential part of digestion.

Try to make meals feel like they are an intentional, important part of your day by sitting down, focusing and avoiding becoming distracted or rushed.

4. Manage stress

Stress can take a toll on all aspects of digestion, including by potentially altering amounts of hormones that are produced, changing blood flow to the GI tract, and interfering with your hunger and cravings.

In addition to eating in a calm environment, work on de-stressing in general, such as by exercising regularly, spending time outdoors, meditating, journaling, reading, etc.

5. Consider taking digestive enzymes

There are a number of reasons that you may want to help improve nutrient absorption. In some cases, taking digestive enzyme supplements may help your body absorb nutrients. 

The right type of digestive enzymes for you to take will depend on which types of foods and macronutrients (carbs, protein or fats) you’re wanting to absorb.

Ideally your supplement will also include botanicals and herbs that further support digestive health, such as fermented, whole-food ingredients like organic black pepper fruit, organic ginger root, turmeric root and apple cider vinegar. 

You can take one serving with your heaviest meal to aid with digestion and balance of healthy microflora.

How Long Before Nutrients Are Absorbed?

This depends on the specific nutrient and how you acquire it (for example, pill form versus food form). Meals that are very high in fiber, protein and fat typically take longer to fully digest and absorb than those high in simple sugars and carbs.

As soon as you eat something, digestion starts to take place inside the mouth, and it continues for hours. Most nutrients will make their way through the stomach and to the small intestine within about 6 to 8 hours of consumption. Most of the absorption happens in that area, while some happens later in the large intestine.

What May Affect Nutrient Absorption?

There are a number of factors that can potentially affect absorption of nutrients in the digestive system, such as:

  • The natural aging process
  • Overall digestion
  • Not eating fat with fat-soluble vitamins
  • Eating an inflammatory diet 
  • Use of certain products that can alter bacteria balance in the GI tract
  • Unrelenting stress and not getting enough sleep
  • Not drinking enough water or drinking too much water
  • Eating while rushed and/or distracted

Nutrient absorption can affect everyone somewhat differently, and depends on that person’s diet, overall lifestyle and even their “wiring.” 

If you want to maximize what you eat, you may want to consider taking steps to further support your absorption of nutrients.

Final Thoughts

  • It’s often overlooked how important nutrient absorption is for general health.  When unabsorbed nutrients — such as vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and amino acids — pass through the digestive tract, they aren’t able to be utilized for essential bodily functions.
  • How can you improve nutrient absorption? Some tips include: pairing the right nutrients together (like iron + vitamin C), consuming probiotics and prebiotics, managing stress, and chewing food thoroughly. 

Jill has been with the Dr. Axe and Ancient Nutrition team for five years. She completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology from Fairfield University, followed by a certification as a Holistic Health Coach from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Jill takes a “non-diet” approach to health and really enjoys teaching others about mindful eating, intuitive eating and the benefits of eating real foods.

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