Something to Drink with That?

Last week I wrote about the need to properly chew your food to aid in complete digestion.  One of the important parts of chewing your food is to allow the enzymes in your saliva to begin breaking down the molecules in the food to prepare it for digestion in the stomach.  As I was researching this, the question that kept coming up for me was what is the effect on digestion when you drink a beverage with a meal?  Think about it, while the beverage is usually an after thought:  “would you like something to drink with that?”, they are usually inseparable:  milk and cookies; coffee and donuts; tea and scones; 64 oz soda and a burger with fries.   So what does the milk do when we try to digest the cookie?  So this week, I went in search of an answer.

While I love milk and cookies, I’m usually a water drinker with meals.  So in order to simplify my task, I chose to research the effect of water on digestion.  How simple could that be, right?  Wrong!

It turns out that there is no clear consensus on the effect of drinking water – or any beverage for that matter – with a meal.  There are some that say don’t do it.  There are others who say it doesn’t matter.  Even my physiology text book just glosses over the ingestion of water in the stomach and mentions that the small intestine absorbs liquids and any that is left over is absorbed in the large intestine.   Big help.

Bleary eyed, I had to venture back into the realm of chemistry, not one of my favorite subjects.   We digest our food though two mechanisms, mechanical – chewing, stomach churning, etc – and chemical.  In the stomach, the chemical process of digestion occurs with the production of gastric juice which is a highly acidic liquid that contains digestive enzymes, mucus and hydrochloric acid.  Its job is to begin the digestion of proteins and kill any bacteria that may have entered along with your food.

The production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach comes from the synthesis and combination of chloride and hydrogen ions.  (Watch it happen here)  Regardless, the gastric juice is highly acidic, in the range of pH of about 1-2.   Water has a pH of about 7 on average, making it neutral, but more basic than gastric juice.  So it stands to reason that if you drink water, the gastric juice becomes less acidic as it is watered down and therefore less effective in digestion.  However, the stomach will react to the dilution by producing more gastric juice to balance the pH to the proper acidic level.  So I don’t believe that water in the stomach creates any problem with digestion.

Where water (or any beverage for that matter) can have an effect is back up in the mouth.   It would stand to reason that drinking a beverage would also dilute the effectiveness of saliva on its ability to break down the molecules in the food and that additional saliva production would be ineffective, since the food remains in the mouth for a relatively short time.  More importantly, in the act of chewing, saliva production is increased and actually eliminates the need for a beverage to “wash the food down”.

Yet, when we use a beverage in this fashion, not only do we loose the benefit of the chemical digestive action of the saliva, we are also more likely to swallow larger chunks of food that have not been properly chewed thereby setting up the potential for increased symptoms of indigestion farther down the line.

So my conclusions to all of this is to first maintain proper hydration by drinking plenty of water through out the day.  Then, drink a beverage (preferabally water) in between bites.  That means, chew your food well until you can’t distinguish what you are chewing by the textures in your mouth, then swallow.  After that,  feel free to rinse your mouth with a sip of water or what ever beverage you’ve chosen.  Avoid the temptation to fill up your mouth with food and then hope to dilute it with a drink in order to choke it down in one gulp.  That’s a recipe for a belly ache!

– Paul Kulpinski, LMT

Additional References:

Structure and Function of the Body, Eleventh Edition,  Thibodeau, Gary A & Kevin T. Patton.

MadSci Network

Chemistry Explained


About Paul Kulpinski, LMT

Paul Kulpinski is a licensed massage therapist, holistic wellness coach and co-founder of Mountain Waves Healing Arts in Flagstaff, Arizona with over 15 years experience in helping people achieve their optimum state of well being. Information contained in this blog should not be taken as medical advice. Readers are advised to validate the information presented here with other sources including your personal physician for information specific to you.
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