Class is in session! Digestion is the physical and chemical process that converts food into fuel so we can have the necessary energy and nourishment to thrive. Within 24-72 hours, the food we eat makes its way through the entire digestive system. The process begins in the mouth. When we chew, enzymes released in our saliva begin breaking down the food. The food is then swallowed and transported to the stomach, where more processing takes place. Breaking down food into energy requires some pretty harsh chemicals. When food enters the stomach, it is sprayed with hydrochloric acid and enzymes. The thick mucus coating that lines the inside of the stomach protects it from this acidic environment.
On the Move
Some very significant actions occur during each step of the digestive process, but the real magic happens in your small and large intestines. Once food travels from the stomach into the small intestine, the gut releases immune cells that check for bacterial contaminants. If contaminants are found, they are normally destroyed so they can be safely eliminated without making you sick. The walls of the small intestine absorb the water and nutrients extracted from food, transporting them across the intestinal lining into the bloodstream.
A healthy intestinal lining allows only these properly digested fats, protein, carbohydrates, along with vitamins and minerals, to pass into the blood stream. Those nutrients are then delivered to the cells. A healthy intestinal lining also acts as a barrier to keep out disease-causing bacteria, foreign substances, and larger undigested food particles.
After a journey through about 25 feet of small intestine, the partially digested food makes its way to the large intestine – also called the colon. This is where the remaining food is transformed into stool so that the body can eliminate it.
When Things Go Wrong
As complicated as digestion is, it’s no wonder most of us have experienced digestive upset at one time or another. While most digestive upsets are nothing more than a minor inconvenience, if symptoms become chronic, it may signal that the body isn’t getting all the nutrients it needs for optimal health. Here are the most common conditions that can upend your gastrointestinal tract:
Constipation – Having three of fewer bowel movements per week, and hard, dry stools – plagues about 20 percent of us, and becomes more prevalent as we age. Stress, poor eating habits, lack of exercise, food allergies, an imbalance of bacteria in the gut (known as dysbiosis), and a lack of digestive enzymes are common constipation triggers. Other, less obvious causes include prescription drugs (such as antidepressants, antacids, and some pain medications), hypothyroidism, and diabetes.
Diarrhea – Diarrhea can be caused by a variety of factors, such as a gastrointestinal bug, antibiotics, food poisoning, or even stress. Normally, short-term diarrhea lasts just a day or two and typically goes away on its own. However, diarrhea lasting more than a few days may be a sign of a more serious problem. If diarrhea lasts for four weeks or more, see a healthcare provider as this may signal a chronic disease.
Gastroenteritis – This is a catch-all phrase that doctors often use to describe any irritation of the stomach and intestines. Marked by nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and a low-grade fever, true gastroenteritis is an inflammation of the lining of the intestines caused by a virus, bacteria, or a parasite. The most common culprit is the norovirus, which spreads through contaminated food or water, and by contact with an infected person.
Since a well-functioning GI tract is responsible for processing every morsel of food you eat and turning it into the fuel your body needs to perform at its best, treat it well! One step you can take is to feed your gut’s beneficial bacteria with probiotics, from foods or with a supplement. Look for a probiotic supplement that has been clinically studied, is shelf-stable, and aim for minimum of one to two billion CFUs to maintain good health.
- “The Good Gut” Healthy Living Guide, FreshLife Media, July 2019
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.