Breaking Down the Water and Digestion Myths

Every day, it seems like there’s a new rule for how to behave. And if you weren’t following that rule before, you’ve probably done untold damage that you’ll need to repair with a strict diet of sauerkraut and high-fiber whole-grain bread.

Sometimes, that’s not too far off. Years of a daily donut habit, for instance, will certainly feed the harmful bacteria in your gut’s microbiome, causing a bacterial imbalance and possibly leaky gut.

But others, we are obligated to investigate further.

For example, the popular claim that drinking water during a meal dilutes your digestive enzymes and presents them from working properly bears additional scrutiny.

Why would that be?

First, let’s define what we’re talking about. 

Digestive enzymes: proteins in the body that break down macromolecules into smaller pieces, thereby making it easier for the small intestine to absorb nutrients. 

The concern here is that drinking water while you’re eating spreads digestive juices, carrying these enzymes, too thin, preventing the enzymes from adequately breaking down food…

Which can lead to issues getting the full benefit of nutrients, the emergence of food intolerances, and uncomfortable digestion.

It’s crucial to understand how digestive enzymes work in order to debunk this myth.

The Thing About Digestive Enzymes

We know that digestion actually starts in the mouth. Your digestive process begins when you start salivating, take a bite of food, and chew.

When your brain signals to your salivary glands to release the saliva, digestive enzymes travel with that saliva to your mouth. Even as you chew, those enzymes begin to help dissolve parts of your half-masticated chow into digestible pieces.

You swallow – your spit, enzymes, and food travel down to your stomach – and from there, your stomach acid turns what was once a yummy gastronomic experience into a thick, viscous liquid called chyme. 

Chyme slimes its way down from your stomach to your lower intestines where it encounters more digestive enzymes from your pancreas plus bile acid from your liver. The purpose of this churning is to break down nutrients into even smaller pieces, making it easier for you to absorb them.

By the time this chyme reaches the large intestine, most nutrients should have already been absorbed in your small intestine.

Anything valuable that’s left will be absorbed there!

After that, the nutrients get distributed throughout your bloodstream as needed, and everything functions just the way it should.


Muddying the Waters

The theory goes that if you drink water while you’re eating a meal, the water travels downward along with your chewed food and weakens the capacity of your stomach acid to neutralize bigger molecules.

However, this is only true if you’re already not producing enough stomach acid (which is a real problem, and pretty common.) If you find yourself experiencing acid reflux, this probably applies to you!

If you’re already low, and your body’s ability to produce gastric acid is compromised, you may well be in danger of over-diluting your stomach acid and rendering it ineffective against its primary task.

However, stomach acid (when it’s functioning properly) can adjust its secretions by volume and potency depending on what it’s given. 

Not only that, but liquid being able to travel faster than food hasn’t been shown to have any effect on the speed of solid food digestion. 

Except, of course, that it can actually be helpful. Water softens stool, helps prevent constipation, pulls food along with it as it moves through the body, prevents bloating, and more. 

And it’s already secreted along with digestive enzymes and gastric acid by the stomach. The body is providing water during the digestive process – maintaining hydration is key for supporting all of the body’s functions, even digestion and even during meal time.

Especially because drinking water and taking breaks while eating can allow your satiety hormones to activate and send signals to your brain, letting you know you’re approaching fullness.

Drinking water during a meal won’t affect your nutrient absorption unless you have an underlying condition in which your stomach’s automated system for creating and deploying gastric acid is already messed up.

Otherwise, it’s always a good thing to keep our internal system lubricated and our cells hydrated!

Editor’s note: Room temperature water is your best bet for a smooth digestive process, as cold drinks (according to Chinese Medicine) can squelch your digestive fire.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.