Your Healthy Digestion
“All disease begins in the gut.” – Hippocrates
The health of your digestive system is crucial to your overall wellbeing.
Good gut health plays a big role in the vital functions of the body’s digestive and immune systems. Having the right kind of bacteria in your digestive system has a positive effect on your body’s absorption of vitamins and minerals, your mental health, hormone regulation, digestion, vitamin production, immune response, and the body’s ability to eliminate toxins.
Let’s take a look at the components of the digestive system and how they play their part in overall gut health.
The upper gastrointestinal tract or gut includes the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, pancreas and gallbladder and the rest is part of the small intestine.
To assist this part of the digestive system to work effectively, it’s wise to ensure that you chew properly so that the food particles broken down into smaller pieces. This enables stomach acid, pancreatic enzymes, and bile acids to act upon them. Eating too quickly can cause bloating due to not chewing your food sufficiently.
So take a moment to relax before eating and take your time. If you are a fast eater, try eating with chopsticks – this is sure to slow you down.
Your stomach is full of naturally produced acid that helps break down food and protects the gastrointestinal tract from infection. In fact your stomach is equivalent in strength to car battery acid.
Stomach acid aids the digestion in a number of ways:
- It’s where protein is begun to be digested. Your stomach acid breaks longer protein chains down into smaller, more digestible polypeptides (chains of amino acids).
- These polypeptides are then further digested by enzymes from the pancreas and, eventually completely broken down by brush border enzymes in the small intestine
- It activates intrinsic factor – a substance released by stomach cells to help absorb Vitamin B12.
- Adequate stomach acidity is essential for proper mineral absorption. If you are chronically low in minerals like zinc, iron, or magnesium, you may be deficient in stomach acid.
- It’s a natural antibiotic and it’s why people who are on acid blocking drugs are more susceptible to food poisoning and other gastro bugs!
Pancreatic enzymes are an essential part of the digestive process too. These are released into the first part of the small intestine—the duodenum - when the acidity of the stomach reaches a certain pH, along with other triggers.
Pancreatic amylase helps to break down starches into smaller polysaccharides and disaccharides which are further broken down in the small intestine by the brush border enzymes.
Protease enzymes help to further break down the protein chains and another enzyme, lipase, breaks down fats in food so they can be absorbed in the intestines.
Bile is a substance made by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. Bile is released when a meal contains fat, and it helps to emulsify fat so that it is better broken down into smaller globules.
Virtually all nutrients from the diet are absorbed into blood across the mucosa of the small intestine. In addition, your small intestine absorbs water and electrolytes, playing a vital role in the maintenance of body water and acid-base balance. The small intestine is about six metres long and contains millions of finger like protrusions called villi which look like a rolled up shaggy carpet. And on top of the villi are even tinier fingers called microvilli. These villi and microvilli together increase the surface area of the small intestine to that of a tennis court!
The microvilli release brush border enzymes - the final step in the digestion of protein and starch. When these microvilli are damaged, so is your absorption of nutrients.
Besides malabsorption of lactose and fructose, certain vitamins and minerals are also not absorbed.
The small intestine also contains 80% of our immune system. That means when undigested food particles are able squeeze through a damaged gut wall, they come into contact with your immune system. This is how food allergies and “leaky gut” come about.
In between meals, your body sends a cleansing wave through the entire small intestines. This is called “the migrating motor complex”. It ensures that bacteria are swept downwards towards the colon.
Stress, medications such as opiates, and chronic anxiety can bring this cleansing wave to a halt. Bacteria are then allowed to remain in the small intestines and multiply, resulting in SIBO.
Did you know that higher numbers of bacteria occur in the large intestine than there are cells in our body?!
The large intestine is about 1.5 metres long. Its function is to get rid of food left over after the nutrients are removed from it, along with bacteria and other waste. This process is called peristalsis and can take around 36 hours. The colon is also responsible for water absorption as well as the absorption of Vitamin B12 and Vitamin K. It forms the stool and houses trillions of bacteria.
The large intestine or colon is a large tube that escorts waste from the body. Once or twice a day when the body is ready for a bowel movement, the waste is dumped into the rectum.
The wall of the colon contains stretch receptors which stimulate movement of the bowel when the stool is bulky.
The colon is susceptible to “dysbiosis” – overgrowth of fungus, bacteria, or parasites. Fungal overgrowth (candida) is often caused by medications such as antibiotics.