Composed of over nine distinct organs, the digestive system is an impressive and complex structure that works in tandem to adequately break down meals and liquids that we eat and drink every day, into critical molecules for the body to translate into muscular energy and nutrients. Everything we munch on is broken down, arranged and reprocessed, and often we don't even think about what's happening to our bodies. Let's break down what's happening in our digestive system.
There are over 9 distinct organs?!
The journey of our food and drink begins even before it reaches our mouths. The moment our brain recognizes the smells and sights of our dish, it activates our salivary glands, promptly creating additional saliva, which makes whatever we're digesting easily absorbable. The food, assisted by the tongue, then enters into the twists and turns of the esophagus, a muscular tube that connects the throat to our stomachs. The esophagus softly contracts as it drives the food into our stomachs by way of a “valve” called the lower esophageal sphincter.
The stomach is up next, a durable organ with impressive muscular walls that stores food, and blends it up with stomach acid and enzymes to break the food down into a liquid or paste before passing it onto the small intestine.
The Small Intestine
Nicknamed the ‘workhorse’ of the digestive system, the small intestine is made up of three notable parts: the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum. The duodenum is where the absorption of nutrients are extracted from the food followed by the jejunum, which continues to absorb carbs and proteins and last not least, the ileum absorbs food's vitamin B12, bile salts, and anything else that wasn’t absorbed by the jejunum. As such, this is the stage where our body gets the majority of its nutrients. How? Well, the food nutrients are absorbed through the walls of the small intestine and straight into our bloodstream. What is deemed as leftovers (aka waste) head off into the large intestine.
The Large Intestine
The Large Intestine is a whopping five- to seven-foot-long muscular tube that bridges the small intestine to the rectum. It is usually a 36-hour process for the waste/stool (composed mostly of food debris and bacteria) to make its way through the colon.
Next, the food, now waste/stool, makes its way to the rectum. The rectum is an 8inch chamber, connected to both the colon and anus. Its job is to store waste until the brain gives the go-ahead to send it to the anus for evacuation.
The final step in the digestive system is in the anus, which is comprised of pelvic floor muscles and an internal and external anal sphincter. The two sphincter's role is to wait for the brain's signal, and then they determine how to best evacuate them from the body, whether as a liquid, gas, or solid. Extraction is a sign of a healthy gut.
The Accessory Organs
The Liver, Pancreas and Gallbladder are often referred to as "accessory organs" - this is because the food itself doesn't actually move through them, however, they produce hormones and chemicals that are essential to the digestive process.
Helping the digestive system to function healthily
Proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water in our food and beverages are all translated into nutrients. Your digestive system breaks nutrients into parts small enough for your body to absorb and use for energy, growth, and cell repair.
Let’s talk about the three “basic” macro-nutrients that your body needs every day. Proteins (Seafood, white-meat poultry, lean beef, cheese, tofu, eggs, etc) break into amino acids, which are required for vital processes such as the building of proteins and the synthesis of hormones and neurotransmitters. Fats (avocados, olive oil, mackerel, tuna, pizza dough, cookies, fried foods) break into fatty acids and glycerol, which are needed as energy sources and are sources of essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins. Plus, they help protect our organs, help us feel full, taste good and add a hint of palatability to our diet. Carbohydrates ( bread, beans, milk, popcorn, potatoes, spaghetti, corn) break into simple sugars, which provide energy to your muscles. Eating carbohydrates keeps your body energized, and fuel your brain, kidneys, heart muscles, and central nervous system.
We can’t forget about hydration. Getting sufficient water or other liquids daily can prevent dehydration. A dehydrated state can result in unclear thinking, mood swings, over-heating, constipation and even kidney stones.
There are many ways we can help our bodies' impressive digestion system function effectively:
- Drink H20
- Include fibrous foods and eat a well-balanced diet: Fibrous foods help the digestive system, keep your stool regular and lower cholesterol. Fibrous foods are beans, popcorns, berries, dried food, and nuts.
- Choose poultry or fish over red meat and limit all deli (processed) meats. Deli meats are full of saturated fat and salt, linked to cancer, obesity and heart disease
- Avoid processed/sugary food
- Opt for whole wheat items, and add in onions and garlic to support your microbiome/gut bacteria.
- Eat mindfully and chew your food. Eating slowly gives your body time to digest your food and chewing food fully makes it easier for your digestive system to absorb the nutrients in the food.
- Physical activity helps move food smoothly through the digestive system. Taking a post-meal stroll walk can help your body digest. For most people, waiting 1–2 hours to exercise post-meal and 30 minutes after a snack is sufficient.
- Drink responsibly/avoid smoking: Alcohol increases the amount of acid in your stomach and can cause heartburn, acid reflux and stomach ulcers. Smoking almost doubles your risk of having acid reflux and is linked to colon cancer. Research has highlighted smokers who struggled with digestive pain or problems had improved symptoms after quitting.
- Manage your stress: Stress is associated with digestive issues such as constipation and IBS.
The digestive system does a whole lot more for our overall health and bodily function than simply breaking down food. It helps our nervous system, brain, and energy levels. Without it, we simply wouldn't get the nutrients we need to stay healthy. So, next time you sit down for breakfast, consider the full break of the journey of your meal, from start to end!
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