Most people are aware that poor eating habits can undermine their health. But according to veteran North Vancouver naturopath Jonn Matsen, eating too well, particularly by relying too much on certain plants, can also create problems.
“To tell people to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and cut out salt is eating too good,” Matsen said during a May 2 lecture at the Indigo bookstore in North Vancouver. “And it can get you just as sick or sicker than eating too bad.”
In a 90-minute presentation, given as part of Naturopathic Medicine Week (which runs from May 3–9), Matsen took the audience on an entertaining tour of the digestive system before explaining how plants high in potassium cause unintended outcomes. On this day, he got his message across with the help of a projector that showed nine illustrated “liver dwarves” named Burpy, Bloaty, Gaspy, Spacey, Achy, Itchy, Bitchy, Sluggy, and Docque.
He began with a detailed explanation of how food travels through the system. He noted that in a healthy person, two parts of the digestive system are heavily alkaline, and two other areas are characterized by high levels of acidity. Later on in the digestive process, toxins are filtered through the liver, which he described as the “hub”.
“The mouth makes alkaline digestive juices that begin digestion of carbohydrates,” Matsen said. “Then the food goes into the stomach, which makes acid—very strong acid—that begins the digestion of proteins.”
In one of his three books, The Secrets to Great Health From Your Nine Liver Dwarves (Goodwin, 1998), Matsen describes how the stomach walls have layers of muscles that “knead” food. In addition, he notes in the book, hydrochloric acid in the stomach converts another substance, pepsinogen, into pepsin, which digests protein and kills most microorganisms and parasites in food.
However, if the stomach isn’t sufficiently acidic, Matsen told the bookstore audience, proteins won’t be fully digested. In addition, he said, parasites, yeast, and bacteria will migrate into the small intestine, which is heavily alkaline. The small intestine is home to a fragile mass of enzymes that absorb nutrients, including dairy and grains. But, Matsen explained, if yeast enters this region, which stretches for three metres, it will “banish” digestive enzymes, causing numerous problems.
“Yeast are fungi,” he said. “Believe me, fungi are not fun guys.”
He added that the role of fungi is to “recycle and compost”, which means they continue breaking down new enzymes as they are replenished by the pancreas. In addition, Matsen said, fungi diminish levels of an amino acid called tryptophan. The mood-elevating hormone serotonin is made from this.
Therefore, he suggested, shortages of tryptophan induced by digestive problems can trigger depression. Matsen noted the vast sums of money spent on antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft, which enrich the pharmaceutical industry, before declaring: “They’re missing the underlying, root problem.”
At this point, Matsen returned to his original point about how eating too many fruits and vegetables can get in the way of optimal health. He explained that digested food leaves the small intestine through a narrow area called the ileocecal valve, before moving into the highly acidic large intestine. As Matsen described, this region is filled with billions of acidophilus bacteria, which kill yeast and prevent diarrhea.
Matsen maintained that in many people—and particularly in those who are health-conscious—the barrier between the small and large intestines breaks down because of a lack of calcium, permitting acidophilus bacteria to move from the large intestine into the alkaline-heavy small intestine. As a result, the pH balance changes in the small intestine, interfering with the absorption of nutrients and allowing some pathogens to thrive.
Matsen stated that low calcium levels weaken the ileocecal valve, increasing the likelihood of this occurring. He also told his audience that taking calcium supplements doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, because calcium requires the presence of vitamin D for distribution through the body. “It’s [calcium] not going to transport vitamin D into your body until activated by your kidneys,” he said.
Vitamin D is obtained naturally by exposure to sunlight—and therein lies the problem, according to Matsen. Books on nutrition encourage people to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and to cut back on meat and salt. However, Matsen explained, as plants are exposed to more sunlight, their potassium levels rise. He stated that these high potassium levels are a signal to the kidneys not to transport vitamin D, preventing the absorption of calcium. Salty foods, which are often eaten in winter, have the opposite effect.
Matsen said the kidney interprets high potassium levels and the effects of a low-salt diet as an indication that the body is receiving sufficient vitamin D through sunlight. “What if you’re eating a banana here in November? The kidneys think you’re in Hawaii,” he emphasized. “They deactivate your vitamin D. Five days of low calcium and you get yeast in your small intestine.”
In The Secrets to Great Health, Matsen writes that the two most common recurring health issues he has encountered are “ileocecal valve discomfort” and “low production of digestive enzymes in the pancreas”. And for some people, eating more bananas in winter is only going to exacerbate these conditions.