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Digestion is the process through which the body gets the nutrients that it needs to run as its best.  Learn about how the digestive system works and what you can do to help keep it running efficiently.

How Digestion Works

Digestive SystemThe body needs fuel for energy, to grow, and to repair itself.  The role of the digestive system is to convert the food that we eat into their simplest forms, such as sugars, proteins, and fatty acids.  The digested or broken down food is then absorbed into the bloodstream from the small intestine and the nutrients are carried to the cells in the body.  The digestive tract starts at the mouth and ends at the anus.

Digestion of our food begins in the mouth, where it is chewed and moistened with saliva to make it easy to swallow.  Saliva also contains enzymes, which begin breaking carbohydrates down into sugars.  The food is then swallowed, where the oesophagus contracts to massage the food into the stomach.  Once in the stomach, the food is mixed with gastric juices.  The stomach is like a muscular bag and it churns the food so that it is broken down both mechanically and chemically.  The food is then sent into the first part of the small intestine, the duodenum.  In the duodenum, the food is mixed with more digestive enzymes that come from the pancreas, and bile which comes from the liver. 

The pancreas is one of the digestive organs and one of the largest glands in the body.  As well as digestive juices, it is responsible for the production and release of insulin, which regulates the sugar levels in the blood.  The liver, another digestive organ, has several roles in the body include breaking down fats, processing proteins and carbohydrates, filtering and processing impurities, and generating glucose for short term energy needs.

After the food leaves the duodenum, it moves into the lower parts of the small intestine which are called the jejunum and the ileum.  The nutrients from the food are absorbed by the ileum, which is lined with millions of fingerlike projections called villi.  The villi are connected to a mesh of capillaries which transfer the nutrients into the bloodstream.  Once the nutrients are absorbed, the waste is moved into the large intestine or bowel.  The remaining water is removed and the waste or faeces is stored in the rectum where it can be passed out of the body via the anus.

Bacteria play an important role in the process of digestion as a large amount live in the large intestine and, to a lesser degree, the rest of the digestive system.  The exact bacteria are particular to each person but what type of bacteria live in your system will depend to some extent where you live, what health conditions you have, and what medications you are taking.

How to Help Your Digestive System

There are several things that you can do to help your digestive system.  These include:

• Chewing thoroughly.  If food is not well chewed, the food fragments will be too big and this will result in incomplete digestion.  Not only will nutrients be left in the food, it will result in extra food for bacteria in the large intestine and this can result in bacterial overgrowth, gas, and symptoms of indigestion.

• Ensure adequate digestive factors.  If necessary supplementation can be used.  Digestive enzymes can also be supported by eating fresh pineapple or papaya which contain bromelain, and other fresh vegetables and herbs.

• Identify and eliminate food allergens.  The absorptive surface of the small intestine can be damaged by food allergies.  Inflammation can occur along the intestinal tract lining, interrupting absorption of nutrients.  Common food allergens include milk proteins, wheat, soy, some shellfish, and peanuts.

• Support the gastrointestinal barrier with choline which is found in vegetables like cauliflower and lettuce.  Catechins, which are found in green tea, carotenoids found in vegetables, and vitamin C, can help protect against the damage caused by Helicobacter pylori bacteria.

• Support the growth of healthy bacteria known as probiotic bacteria.  A good balance of probiotics in the colon crowd out pathogenic bacteria and other microorganisms that compromise your health and stop them from growing.  By fermenting the fibre that the body couldn’t digest directly, the bacteria also produce short chain fatty acids that the colon cells use for nourishment, as well as being absorbed into the body, having a healthy effect on the small intestine and the digestive system in general.  Foods that supply probiotics include some yogurts, kefir, and other foods that have been fermented with Lactobacillus or contain Bifidobacteria, the healthy bacteria.  Foods that nourish probiotic bacteria include foods that contain soy fibre, inulin, and rice fibre.

• It is important to deal with stress effectively as the intestine responds negatively to stress, during which the intestinal lining becomes leaky, nutrient absorption is less effective, and the body cannot selectively uptake the nutrients that it needs.  Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and refined carbohydrates.  Ingest foods with calming properties such as herbal teas (chamomile is good).  Eat your meals at regular times and in a relaxed environment.


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