The Digestive System | The Road to Good Health!

We are what we eat, what we assimilate,
and what we do not eliminate!

Our digestive system is the method our bodies use to transform the food we eat into energy. Our digestive system runs from our mouth to our rectum. The food is taken into the body, broken down, sorted and reprocessed, circulated around the body to nourish and replace cells, and to supply energy to our muscles. Every organ involved in the digestive system has a purpose. The main players of the digestive system are:

  • Mouth
  • Esophagus
  • Liver
  • Gallbladder
  • Stomach
  • Pancreas
  • Small Intestine

The Digestive Process

Digestion begins in the mouth where we chew our food. Our food mixes with saliva and its main enzyme of ptyalin (amylase). This enzyme helps us dissolve our food so it is easier to swallow. Once we swallow we send our food on a journey down the esophagus into the stomach. The stomach turns our food into a paste called chyme. The stomach uses hydrochloric acid and the enzyme pepsin to begin the breaking down of proteins. From the stomach, some foods like water and sugar are immediately absorbed into the bloodstream. The other food, that isn't absorbed continues it journey to the pyloric sphincter which is located at the very end of the stomach. This sphincter is the gateway to our small intestines. Once the food is broken down and mixed, it is released into the small intestine. The small intestine is broken up into three parts - the duodenum, the jejunum, and the ileum. The small intestine is where the major digestion and absorption of nutrients takes place. Some nutrients are taken into the bloodstream and some are transported to the liver for storage.

The pancreas, gallbladder, and liver also play key roles in the digestive process.

  • The pancreas manufactures various enzymes and hormones. The main ones are amylase for the digestion of starches, and insulin and glucagon to regulate the blood sugar levels. The pancreas pumps these enzymes and hormones directly into the duodenum.
  • The gallbladder squeezes out bile (which is collected from the liver) to dissolve fats.
  • The liver is the largest organ in the body and the body's main chemical factory. The liver performs over 500 functions including producing bile, processing nutrients, converting dietary proteins into new proteins that are needed for our blood. It also stores fats, carbs proteins, and vitamins and releases proteins, carbs and vitamins as needed. The liver absorbs poisons and toxic substances before neutralizing them.

Once the chyme passes the small intestine, any remaining matter is passed into the cecum, which is the beginning of the large intestine or colon. The large intestine is where fecal matter is formed. Water is reabsorbed and B-Vitamins are absorbed. The matter is moved along through the rest of the colon ending at the rectum.

One thing we can say for certain is that our digestive process is about change. Carbohydrates are changed into simple carbohydrates or sugars, proteins are changed into the building blocks of the body called amino acids, fats become fatty acids or glycerin. It is amazing how the whole foods we eat are changed into useable forms of food for the body called nutrients which then become absorbed into our bloodstream.

Main Problems of the Digestive System

  • Transit Time is the amount of time it takes to go from one end to the other end. Specialist say the normal transit time is usually 24 hours. When the transit time is too slow or too fast, it can causes problems. If it is too fast, we may not be absorbing the nutrients from the food we eat, and if it is too slow, we maybe contributing to a build of wastes. Our digestive tract moves food through it by an action called peristalsis. This same movement also forces the waste into our rectum for elimination. Some experts say elimination should happen between 2-4 times per day based on the data that when you feed a baby or a puppy, they both usually tend to eliminate right after eating. Natural health experts feel that this is the way it should always be. However, I don't know about you, but this isn't the case with most adults. We all get busy and ignore the sign of nature's call off too often. They say by the time we eat dinner, we should have eliminated breakfast. Our digestive system is said to be set up to handle only 3-4 small meals. So, if you eat 3-4 meals without eliminating you are bogging down your system.
  • Inadequate enzymes. Food is digested with the help of enzymes. If we do not have enzymes, our food would take about the same amount of time to digest as a piece of fruit sitting on the counter takes to rot. The foods we eat are processed and contain no enzymes, which requires more of our enzymes to be used to digest the food. The enzymes in our body were designed to help digest foods that are fresh and alive. Preservatives, chemical additives, microwaves, heating food, pasteurization, boxed, canned, shelf life food, and refined food are not fresh and alive. Enzymes are needed for detoxification. They turn fat soluble materials and waste into water for easier elimination. Fewer enzymes equals more toxicity. Enzymes also help in the removal of allergens, pollution, heavy metals, and to maintain a normal pH level throughout the digestive system. This pH level is necessary in reducing inflammation.
  • Not enough probiotics or good bacteria. Probiotics prevent harmful organisms from creating a new home for themselves in our digestive system. They are found in the small intestine and colon. They say a healthy individual should have trillions of these good bacteria in the intestines. Probiotics play a role in producing additional enzymes, producing antibiotic substances to fight bad bacteria, the formation of B vitamins, reducing the stress on the liver, preventing constipation, and boosting immunity. You can see why it is so important to make sure our bodies have enough of these good bacteria.
  • Hiatal Hernias - The hiatus is located in the diaphragm where the esophagus passes to reach the stomach. Sometimes a part of the stomach protrudes through the hiatus creating a hernia. This allows the backflow of acid or chyme up into the throat. This is usually known as acid reflux or heartburn. Hiatal Hernias can be very painful and can create difficulty breathing.
  • Hydrochloric Acid in our stomachs is not bad for us. It is HCL that fights off microbes and breaks down proteins. It also stimulates the pancreas and small intestines to produce additional enzymes as wells bile that will be used further in the digestive process. Sometimes neutralizing the stomach acid can make your digestion worse. Our stomachs have a mucus lining which creates a barrier between the stomach wall and the acid that is produced. This is natures way of protecting our stomach lining. The cells of the stomach are replaced so rapidly we actually have a new stomach lining every 3 days.. The question I leave you to ponder, is that as we age we produces less HCL naturally, then we add antacids, a poor diet, over eating, and voila we have digestive problems and an under acid stomach. Low levels of HCL can lead to protein malnourishment, which can lead to acidic pH levels in the blood which sets the stage for toxins, illness, and disease. Once our blood becomes acidic it looks for minerals to counteract that acidity and robs them from other parts of the body including the calcium from our bones.

Things We Can Do

I think you might be thinking I am starting to sound like a broken record (some of you remember what a record is) but here it goes.

  • Eat a healthy diet full of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and seeds. Make sure you get some complex carbohydrates, proteins and good fats (omega 3 and 6, avocados, black currant oil, greens, nuts, seeds).
  • Chew your food 25 times so the rest of your digestive system doesn't have to break up chunks. I can remember my mom telling me that all the time.
  • Exercise is great for the digestive system, keeping your muscles tones around the intestinal area is very helpful
  • Make sure you are drinking good healthy water (hopefully you are using a water filtration system). Water helps us to avoid constipation. Sometimes people are thirsty instead of being hungry, so drink a full glass of water one half hour before you eat to make sure you are really hungry. They say the test to make sure you are properly hydrated is, if you can eat a full meal without drinking anything, you are chewing your food and your body is hydrated.
  • Fiber nutritionists are advising 30-40 grams of fiber a day. There are different types of fiber, some of them are soluble like pectin, mucilage, and gum. Others are insoluble and are made from cellulose and hemi cellulose. Whatever type of fiber you take - drink lots of water! Fiber helps you feel full, decreases appetite, helps with weight loss, speeds bowel movements, reduces bad cholesterol, delays blood sugar absorption, grabs onto toxins sweeping then out of the body, it can lower the chance of colon cancer, and help you avoid hemorrhoids.
  • Detoxification. People have cleansed the colon for years, this dates back to 2500bc with the Egyptian Bowel Specialists. It is definitely important to keep your bowels moving. I am not a huge fan of stimulants like cascara sagrada because I feel some people tend to rely on them and they can be over used. So watch your transit times and start with fiber, good healthy water and chewing your food.

Nature's Sunshine Products

These products may help with some of those digestive issues:

Gentle Move, Proactazyme Plus, Probiotic 11

Written by Jay P. Vanden Heuvel, PhD - All Rights Reserved