Have you ever wondered how your digestive system works and what is happening to that meal before it reaches the toilet?
The digestive system is made up of a complex set of organs, starting at the mouth and ending at the anus. For proper digestion and absorption of nutrients to occur, your digestive system needs to be functioning at its best. Let’s take a look at the journey your food goes through in the digestive system, and what it takes to extract the nutrition from your food.
The mouth and teeth are an essential beginning to the digestive process. Chewing your food not only helps to break food down into pieces which can be swallowed and more easily digested, but the act of chewing also lets your stomach and pancreas know to get ready for action and produce the stomach acid and enzymes required to break your food down.
Your saliva also has a role, containing digestive enzymes which begin to break down your food. There’s also receptors in the mouth that will let your body know what is coming in preparation so that your pancreas, liver and stomach can create/excrete bile, stomach acid and the relevant enzymes to break your food down.
TIP: One of the most vital things you can do to help your digestion is to chew your food well before you swallow it. By chewing until it is a paste in your mouth, you make it easier for your body to extract the nutrients further down the line. Chew your food 20 times per mouthful.
Once swallowed your food will make its way down your oesophagus and into the stomach. The oesophagus pumps food into the stomach, and has a sphincter at the bottom to help keep you food in the stomach. If this sphincter is not tight enough it can cause reflux or heartburn.
TIP: Reflux is often thought to be a problem of over acidity, however often a low acid situation will cause a loosening of the lower esophageal sphincter (LOS). See a naturopath to look at balancing the stomach acid, rather than simply taking antacids which do not address the root cause of the problem.
Once your food reaches the stomach it begins to get broken down by stomach acids into smaller particles as the stomach contracts. This is the main site for breaking down protein, so if your stomach acid is too low you can get smelly gas from the proteins fermenting in your bowel.
Other signs that you may not have enough stomach acid are reflux (caused by the stomach having to pump harder), burping, low appetite and bad breath.
TIP: Stress is the biggest cause of low stomach acid, so make sure you address stress as part of any digestive treatment plan.
The pancreas is located at the start of the small intestine (duodenum), and has the job of producing enzymes to break down carbohydrates, protein and fat. When you eat, the body signals the pancreas to produce enzymes. If you have low pancreatic enzyme function you may get belching, burping, bloating, indigestion and constipation.
TIP: Digestive stimulants like bitters can help your pancreas to make more enzymes.
The Liver and Gallbladder
The liver is essential for breaking down the fat that you eat. Your liver produces bile, which is then concentrated in your gallbladder for release into the small intestines. Signs that your liver may not be functioning well include nausea, intolerance to fatty foods, diarrhoea and bloating.
TIP: Bile makes your stools dark brown, so if you always have light coloured stools it can indicate a bile insufficiency.
The Small Intestine
The small intestine has the big job of completing digestion and absorbing nutrients from your food, so it’s no wonder it is around 6m or 20 feet long! The walls of the small intestine are made up of lots of cells with different functions, from carrying vitamins and minerals across the intestinal wall to absorbing glucose and fats so that your body can make energy.
The small intestine also contains billions of bacteria (your microbiome) that work as part of your immune system and keep the intestine nice and healthy. An imbalance in these bacteria is called dysbiosis, which means there are too many bad bacteria and not enough good bacteria. Symptoms of dysbiosis are bloating, indigestion, irregular bowel movements and smelly gas.
TIP: Your transit time is how fast your food moves through the gut. A slow transit will lead to constipation, and a fast transit can cause loose bowel movements.
The Large Intestine
The Large Intestine has the job of absorbing excess water from the bowel movement, which is why you can get constipated if you do not drink enough water. The large intestine also helps to create and absorb some B vitamins and vitamin K. If the bowel is not working effectively you may have incomplete bowel movements, excess gas and digestive discomfort.
You also have 10x more bacteria in your large intestine than your small intestine, and the role of this microbiome is essential for just about every system of your body.
As you can see your food has got quite a journey to go through, which is why it is so important that you have good digestive health.
When things go wrong
Issues with the digestive system are so common due to the complexity of the system, and the fact that we don’t always put the right food into our bodies. An issue in one area can easily lead to an issue in another, and before you know it there are multiple areas of dysfunction. This then leads to bloating, wind, reflux or irregular bowel movements.
Signs and symptoms are your body’s way of telling you something isn’t right, so if your gut is experiencing symptoms it may be time to see a naturopath and get this checked out.
Need help with digestive problems like bloating, reflux, diarrhoea, constipation, IBS or excessive wind? Call us and book an initial appointment with Katherine or one of her team, so you can get to the bottom of what is going on.