Reader’s Digestion: The Ins and Outs of Your Wonderful Guts

 

Reader’s Digestion: The Ins and Outs of Your Wonderful Guts

Your gastrointestinal (GI) system–also known as the digestive system–is a highly organized system of components that includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, rectum and anus. These organs work together to break food down into sugars, amino acids, fatty acids, and other simple molecules that power the body and all of its amazing processes. Basically, digestion is life.

How Does the Digestive System Work?

Here are the stages of food digestion:

  1. diagram of the digestive systemFood enters the body through the mouth via the delicious act known as eating. Here, food is prepared for digestion by chewing (one reason why it’s important to chew your food well). There are also enzymes in your saliva that help start the digestion process.
  2. Swallowing sends food from the mouth to the esophagus, which uses a series of muscular contractions known as peristalsis to move food to the stomach.
  3. The stomach uses acids and enzymes to convert food into a thick semi-liquid form called chyme (from the Greek word for juice). The stomach then expels the chyme into the small intestine. When ready, food is passed to the small intestine for absorption.
  4. The small intestine is where nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream for your body’s use. The pancreas, liver, and gallbladder help by excreting enzymes and hormones that break down the chyme into bits small enough to be absorbed.
  5. What remains is passed along to the large intestine, where it is converted into solid waste with the help of bacteria. Water and salts are extracted from any undigested food.
  6. Waste is transported by the rectum, which connects the large intestine to the anus. Your rectum acts as a holding facility and sends a message to the brain, letting you know you have to go. The “end product” is expelled through the anus.

When Good Digestion Goes Bad

bad bacteria illustration by Don SmithThe glorious symphony that is food digestion doesn’t always happen without a hitch. Illnesses, conditions and lifestyle factors can disrupt proper digestion and lead to further problems, such as GI distress (diarrhea, constipation, pain and bloating), malabsorption, stomach discomfort and ulcers.

Here are some causes of a compromised digestive system:

  • Poor diet – A diet that is deficient in essential nutrients affects the digestive system’s ability to function effectively and can lead to many chronic conditions.
  • Overuse of antibiotics – Antibiotics kill both “good” and “bad” bacteria, leading to an imbalance in vital intestinal flora. If the good bacteria (often called probiotics) are not restored the bad bacteria will take over, leading to a poorly functioning gut and immune system.
  • Chronic infections – An overgrowth of bacteria (like H. pylori) or fungi (like Candida yeast) can aggravate chronic conditions and contribute to malabsorption of vital vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.
  • Food intolerances – Food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities can all lead to digestive woes. Identifying and eliminating foods that cause unsavory reactions will help.
  • Stress – Chronic stress and negative thinking can literally upset your digestive system. Over time, stress can cause serious damage to your guts, leading to things like ulcers and hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid).
  • Lack of digestive enzymes – Without the right combination of digestive enzymes, food can’t be broken down efficiently, which leads to vitamin, mineral, and amino acid deficiencies.
  • Low hydrochloric acid (HCL) – A low output of HCL (aka hypochlorhydria) can lead to bacterial and yeast overgrowth, which aggravates many chronic conditions.

Tips to Support Your Digestive System

Diet:

  • fruit and vegetable collage by Flickr user Penn StateFocus on nutrient-dense, natural whole foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, meats and nuts).
  • Increase your intake of saturated fats and omega fatty acids from good sources like fish, nuts, seeds and healthier oils.
  • Include high-fiber foods like flax seed, raspberries, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
  • Avoid nutritional deficiencies by complementing nutrient-dense foods with quality supplementation.
  • Avoid eating before bedtime. Going to bed with food in your stomach can tax your digestive system; it needs rest too!
  • Chew your food well, and take your time when eating. Avoid rushed meals.
  • Aim for smaller meals and snacks spread throughout the day.
  • Drink plenty of water during and in between meals.

Avoid these foods that can irritate the digestive system:

  • fast food burger and fries by Flickr user SteFou!Alcoholic beverages
  • Caffeinated beverages such as coffee, tea, and soft drinks
  • Dairy products
  • Foods that contain gluten
  • Refined sugars and artificial sweeteners
  • Nitrites and nitrates found in processed foods such as hot dogs, lunch meats, and bacon
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG), the infamous flavor additive
  • Hydrogenated oils found in many processed and deep fried foods
  • Junk and fast foods – just say no

Supplementation:

  • Probiotics to help balance gut bacteria and promote regularity
  • Digestive enzymes to improve digestion and breakdown of food
  • Vitamins and minerals, especially magnesium, calcium, vitamin C and other antioxidants, and a B complex
  • Omega-3 fish oil
  • Activated charcoal to help eliminate gut toxins
  • Betaine HCL with pepsin to promote healthy levels of stomach acid
  • Natural fibers such as psyllium, oat bran, rice bran, prunes, ginger, fenugreek seed and vegetable cellulose help restore normal intestinal mobility
  • Mastic gum, MSM, licorice and glycine are anti-inflammatory and may help to soothe and protect irritated digestive tracts

Exercise:

A sedentary lifestyle can slow down the digestive process. A brisk walk is the perfect exercise for encouraging healthy bowel movements. Furthermore, an outdoor stroll is a great way to manage stress, reduce anxiety, and take in much needed sunlight (and thus Vitamin D).

Stress Management:
For general stress management, try to get one relaxing activity in each day. Pick something you’ll actually enjoy, but won’t cause additional stress. Some good options are yoga, tai chi, meditation, massage, swimming and walking. More stress management tips can be found here.

Image Credits: Diagram of digestive system via Wikipedia Commons under Public Domain; Vegetable and fruit collage by Flickr user Penn State; fast food burger and fries by Flickr user SteFou!

Dr Eric Bakker, NZ naturopathic physicianAbout the Author: Eric Bakker B.H.Sc. (Comp.Med), N.D, R.Hom. is a highly experienced naturopathic physician who has been in clinical practice for 27 years. Eric is passionate about improving people’s lives through proven wellness and lifestyle principles, natural medicine practice as well as public and professional practitioner education. Eric specialises in candida, psoriasis, as well as adrenal fatigue, thyroid and digestive disorders. Dr. Bakker has written one of the most comprehensive books on yeast infections called Candida Crusher. He has also written what may well be the most comprehensive Natural Psoriasis Treatment Program available. You can find more articles by Dr. Bakker on his blog at www.ericbakker.com


References:

1)Anatomy of the Digestive System. EMedicine Consumer Health  http//:www.emedicinehealth.com/resources/40933-6.asp

2) Johnson, D.R. “Introductory Anatomy: Digestive System.” Centre for Human Biology, UK
http://www.leeds.ac.uk/chb/lectures/anatomy8.html
Accessed May 2005.

3) “Consequences of Poor Diet.” Diagnose-Me
http://www.diagnose-me.com/cond/C2556.html
Accessed May 2005

4) “Poor Diet, Lack of Exercise as Lethal as Smoking.” American Cancer Society
http://www.cancer.org/docroot/NWS/content/NWS_2_1x_Were_Killing_Ourselves.asp
Accessed May 2005

5) “Acidophilus Effects, Benefits and Other Information”
http://altmedicine.about.com/cs/digestiveproblems/a/Acidophilus.htm
Accessed May 2005

6) “Helicobacter Pylori: The Treatable Cause of Ulcer and Gastric Cancers”
http://www.mcphu.edu/continuing/cme/medicine/h-pylori/introduc.htm
Accessed May 2005

7) “Celiac Disease”
http://www.gluten.net/celiac.html
Accessed May 2005

8) “Lactose Intolerance.” NDDIC
http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/lactoseintolerance/
Accessed May 2005

9) “Stress and Your Health”
http://www.4woman.gov/faq/stress.htm
Accessed May 2005

10) “Heavy Metal Toxicity.” Diagnose-Me
http://www.diagnose-me.com/cond/C15891.html
Accessed May 2005

11) “Reversing Hypochlorhdyria”
http://www.drdebe.com/REVLWHCL.htm
Accessed May 2005

 

One thought on “Reader’s Digestion: The Ins and Outs of Your Wonderful Guts

  1. Hello, NOW thanks to your website and blog I know that I have ‘burn out’ or adrenal fatigue. And yes!, I too had that ‘final straw’ incidence that was it for me. I had been put through so much from all sides until I thought I might have a stroke and/or a heart attack and about the time the pressure let up,it came back in the form of one very petty woman. Now I’m a wreck of a basket-case!.

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