How the Digestive System Works

*This article appears on Sanandi.com, an incredible health and wellness company.

The health industry is rife with words like “detox” and “optimal health.” There’s a lot of talk about the importance of making sure you have a healthy working digestive system and it’s well acknowledged that the gut is often at the root of disease.

We’ll be the first to tell you about any and all of those (in fact, we have articles about most of those things) but we’ll also be the first to tell you the knowledge is power. We believe fully that you deserve to be in control of your own health—and the best way to achieve that is to know what you’re working towards.

You can read every article about ways to get your digestive system on track, but if you don’t know the signs of optimal digestion, you won’t be able to recognize the signs of dis-ease. We don’t want you blindly detoxing because an article piqued your interest or flushing out your liver when you don’t need to (there is such a thing as overdoing it). We want you to know what you’re dealing with in your own body so you know when to take action for your body.

So, we decided to tell you the basics about your ideal body, starting with the digestive system.

How Your Digestive System Should Work

The basic function of our digestive system is to break down the food that we consume into energy that nourishes our body.

Seems simple, yeah? Well, it’s actually pretty complicated, but we’ll try to make it easy to understand here.

How Food Travels Through the Body

Where does digestion start? If you said, “in your mouth” you would be right. (Although there is an argument that digestion starts before that, with your other senses—like when you see the donut in the window of the shop or when you smell turkey dinner and you’re drooling over how good you know it will be)

Upper GI

Physically though, your mouth starts digestion with the release of saliva. Healthy saliva has enzymes that start the breakdown of carbohydrates immediately. It also helps to remineralize your teeth and has an antimicrobial effect on your gums. When your mouth starts to salivate, it also signals to your body “Hey! We’re going to have some food!” and your stomach releases its own digestive secretions. (Note: we didn’t say this article was going to be pretty.)

So you’ve adequately chewed your food—some people need to be reminded, you know—and swallowed, the food travels down the esophagus, basically just a muscular tube, and into the stomach.

This is where it gets good.

The stomach secretes hydrochloric acid and an enzyme called pepsin, which kills pathogens in food and helps to break down proteins into individual amino acids. Here the stomach mechanically and chemically breaks down food into an unrecognizable mass called chyme. That process of churning and fermenting stimulates the release of hormones in the small intestine.

Lower GI

The first part of the small intestine is called the duodenum. The duodenum is important because it acts as a neutralizing zone—remember that the stomach uses a highly corrosive acid to break down food, it’s still very acidic when it enters the duodenum, which isn’t well tolerated in the rest of the body. So, in order to balance the acidity, the pancreas releases bicarbonate into the duodenum. (I know, we’re like a verifiable science experiment.)

Then, still in the duodenum, the gallbladder releases bile to emulsify the fats in the chyme while the pancreas and liver release enzymes that help further breakdown macronutrients (fat, protein, carbs) to their most basic units. Here things sort of split off into two directions, macronutrients go to the liver through the portal vein and everything else continues through the lower GI.

With the carbohydrates, proteins, and fats broken down into small molecules, those nutrients are passed to the liver and the lymph—the carbs and proteins in the liver and the fat in the lymph.

The liver has a whole slew of amazing functions including organizing useful nutrients, cleaning out the toxins (and sending them off to be disposed of properly), detoxifying the metabolites, maintaining the balance of fats and carbs, storing glucose as glycogen for further energy supply, and feeding the tissues in the body.

Meanwhile, the remaining chyme is being pushed through the rest of the small intestine and the body is pulling vitamins and minerals from it. In the lower part of the small intestine, vitamin B12, folic acid, essential fatty acids, vitamins A,D,E and bile are absorbed into the bloodstream.

What’s left of chyme is then pushed into the large intestine, where intestinal flora breakdown the chyme even further and more folic acid and vitamin K is absorbed. At the very last stage, the colon pulls out excess water, chlorine, and sodium from the chyme, turning it to feces, which exits the body via the rectum.

It’s important to note that the digestive system is intimately intertwined with the nervous system and without proper functioning of one or the other, both systems can be compromised.

Where Things Go Wrong

Okay, so the digestive system is a complex part of the body. It has a lot of organs and it compounds upon itself—dis-ease within the system works the same way.

You’ll notice that different macronutrients are broken down in different parts of the digestive system—carbohydrates in the saliva, proteins by the hydrochloric acid in the stomach, and fats are emulsified in the duodenum.

A lot of common digestive issues start when these macronutrients aren’t properly broken down before they enter the next stage of digestion. For instance, let’s say you don’t produce enough stomach acid to break down the protein you eat—this is actually how the body forms acid reflux, so it’s pretty common—that means proteins that haven’t been broken down move into the duodenum. The duodenum’s activity of neutralizing the stomach acid and emulsifying fats can be stifled because now the protein macronutrient has to be broken down and absorbed in the intestines. Since that isn’t their job, and now complete proteins are intact and can’t be broken down, you could see issues like constipation, gas, and bloating from the lower GI, but the cause is an inactive part of the upper GI.

Another common issue is with the actual food people eat. Notice above that I mentioned that after fat is emulsified, the broken down macronutrients are sent through the portal vein straight through the liver. That means it doesn’t go through the extra filtration system. I hate to be a fear-monger but most pesticides are fat soluble (I think you can guess where I’m going with this). The emulsfied fats, take those pesticides with them (woosh) straight to the liver. Now the liver is taxxed with the extra task of removing those pesticides… but the liver has literally 200 other jobs to do, so it’s possible that it doesn’t get all the pesticides out the first time, or that it doesn’t fully do another job that it has. Pesticides in your bloodstream or stored in fat in the body can be problematic in the long term, causing DNA disruption along with cellular malformation.

These are just a couple of examples of very common issues that come up within the digestive system. There are countless symptoms of digestive issues—any dis-ease that comes through our door, we’re looking at the digestive system first. Luckily, it’s a resilient system and there are ways to help yourself heal and work with your body to keep your digestive system working the best as possible.

6 Ways Keep your Digestive System Healthy

Everyone is different, so we can’t give you surefire ways that will work for you (if you want to ask a specific question, we suggest chatting with your naturalpath)

Watch your diet. We’re not telling you to change anything… yet. If you’re working with chronic digestive issues look at what you’re eating and try to identify where the first breakdown is. The solution might be as easy as chewing your food more or eating your protein at a different time of the day.

Make changes. It’s hard, I know. But if you know that cheese with bread makes you bloated (hello) or that a steak for dinner flares up your acid reflux, try to limit your intake of those things. There isn’t a magic pill to take that actually heals your digestive system—everyone’s body is different so find what works for you and stick to it.

Stimulate and balance. One of the biggest indications for uncomfortable digestion starts with sluggish movement in a part of the system. Our Herbal Digestive Extract is perfect to balance the digestive system with 25 drops in warm water just after each meal. It boasts prebiotics like dandelion and bitter herbs of wormwood and artichoke to stimulate secretions, mint and ginger to soothe any indigestion, milk thistle and burdock to protect and stimulate the liver, and aloe and calendula to fortify the mucosal lining throughout the whole digestive system.

Eat organic. Our bodies have a finite amount of energy and we can’t break down pesticides. Help your liver out by focusing on organic when you can. If you can’t afford it or it isn’t available where you are, try to focus on organic meat and dairy and do your best to eat whole foods.

Periodically Detox. We don’t say this lightly and the detox we suggest is very simple—only veggies for at least a week. No caffeine, dairy, sugar, meat, or wheat. If you can eat soup for dinner and drink a smoothie for breakfast, that’s wonderful. Give your liver a little break from anything heavy and you’ll find yourself able to realign in no time.

Don’t overdo it. Sometimes we start out with a manageable issue and we end up reading every blog and doctor’s article, there are 10 over the counter medications on the nightstand, the issue gets worse there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. Take a step back, try to identify where the breakdown is in your health, and then take the steps forward to rectify the issue. If you need help, seek it out. Talk to a naturalpath or a nutritionist and align your health goals with the way your optimal body works.

Do you have any tips for keeping your digestive system healthy? Let us know in the comments below.

References:

Gray, H., & Pick, T. (1977). Anatomy, descriptive and surgical (Rev. American, from the 15th English, ed.). New York: Bounty Books.

http://www.innerbody.com/image_dige02/dige21.html

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