How to Keep Digestive System Healthy

The digestive system is a fascinating and complex process that breaks down the food we eat into microscopic particles that can be absorbed into the bloodstream. In order to keep the digestive system functioning optimally, it is important to understand how each part works and what we can do to support its health. This article will provide an overview of the digestive organs, enzymes, and processes involved in digestion, and offer tips on dietary and lifestyle habits that promote good gut health.

The Mouth: Where Digestion Begins

The mouth is the first step in the digestive process. It is the only area where we have total control over what goes in. The mouth’s pH is alkaline, which helps neutralize acids that may come up from the stomach. There are two enzymes produced in the mouth:

  • Salivary amylase: Produced in the salivary glands, this enzyme starts breaking down starch. It is activated when a baby’s back molars grow in.
  • Lingual lipase: Produced under the tongue, this enzyme starts breaking down saturated fats.
  • In addition to enzymes, chewing is another critical function of the mouth. Thoroughly chewing food into a near-liquid state makes it easier for the rest of the digestive tract to break it down. The well-chewed food then passes through the esophagus and into the stomach via the cardiac sphincter.

    The Stomach: Where Protein Digestion Begins

    While the mouth is alkaline, the stomach contains hydrochloric acid and has an acidic pH. This is important for:

  • Activating the enzyme pepsin which breaks down protein
  • Killing off any bacteria, yeast, or other pathogens that may have entered with the food
  • The stomach digests protein with the help of three components:
  • Pepsinogen – released from glands in the stomach
  • Hydrochloric acid – also released from glands in the stomach
  • Intrinsic factor – required for B12 absorption; released from parietal cells in the stomach
  • When food enters the stomach, hydrochloric acid activates pepsinogen into pepsin, allowing it to break down protein. Intrinsic factor binds with vitamin B12 so it can later be absorbed in the small intestine.After 1-4 hours of digestion, partially broken-down food passes from the stomach into the small intestine via the pyloric sphincter. Problems like heartburn can occur if this sphincter does not close properly, allowing stomach acid to reflux up the esophagus.

    The Small Intestine: Where Nutrients Are Absorbed

    The majority of nutrient absorption happens in the small intestine, which is divided into three sections:

  • Duodenum – Where food from the stomach is further mixed with digestive enzymes from the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder.
  • Jejunum – Main area of nutrient absorption.
  • Ileum – Absorbs vitamin B12, bile acids, and any remaining nutrients.
  • Pancreas

    The pancreas releases crucial enzymes into the duodenum:

  • Pancreatic amylase – Finishes breaking down starches.
  • Pancreatic lipase – Breaks down fats.
  • Trypsin and chymotrypsin – Break down proteins.
  • Liver and Gallbladder

    The liver produces bile, which gets stored in the gallbladder until released into the small intestine. Bile contains bile salts and phospholipids that emulsify and break down fats.

    Small Intestine Lining

    The walls of the small intestine contain finger-like projections called villi that absorb nutrients from food into the bloodstream and lymphatic system. The cells of the villi produce digestive enzymes as well.Healthy gut flora consisting mainly of Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium coat the villi and assist with the final stages of digestion, protecting the intestinal lining from pathogens and toxins.

    The Large Intestine: Absorbing Water and Eliminating Waste

    After most nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine, any remaining indigestible food fibers and waste moves into the large intestine, which is made up of the colon, rectum, and anus. Here, water and electrolytes are absorbed from the waste to form solid stools.The appendix is connected to the colon and secretes mucus to lubricate stools for easier elimination. It also harbors beneficial gut bacteria.Stool moves through the colon by contractions called peristalsis, becoming more solid as water is removed. It is eliminated through the rectum and anus. Constipation can occur if stools move too slowly and become overly dry and hardened.

    Tips for Improving Digestive Health

    • Chew food thoroughly – The more broken down food is initially, the less work for the rest of the digestive organs.
    • Avoid drinking large amounts of fluid with meals – Fluids dilute stomach acid needed for digestion. Drink fluids 30 minutes before or 1.5 hours after eating instead.
    • Eat smaller meals spaced 5-6 hours apart – Allows each organ time to fully digest food before more enters.
    • Eat lightly in the evening – Digestion slows down when sleeping.
    • Reduce irritants like spicy foods, dairy, or greasy foods if you have digestive issues.
    • Take probiotic supplements – Replenishes healthy gut flora.
    • Increase prebiotic fiber from foods like bananas, onions, garlic – Feeds probiotics.
    • Stay well hydrated between meals – Prevents constipation.
    • Exercise regularly – Supports healthy peristalsis.
    • Manage stress – Stress can alter gut motility and stomach acid secretion.
    • Sit in a squatting position on the toilet – Allows more complete elimination and prevents straining.
    • Increase stomach acid naturally with lemon juice, ginger, apple cider vinegar – Improves protein digestion.
    • Consider digestive enzymes with pancreatin, ox bile, lipase – Can improve nutrient absorption.
    • Take slippery elm powder – Soothes intestinal inflammation.
    • With a basic understanding of how our digestive system works, we can make simple dietary and lifestyle changes to keep it functioning in tip-top shape for improved health and wellbeing. Supporting our body’s innate ability to digest, absorb, and eliminate is one of the most impactful steps we can take to care for our gut and ourselves.

    Proactive Steps To Care For Gut Health

    The digestive process involves many different organs, enzymes, and stages as food gets broken down into molecules that can enter the bloodstream for use by the body. By eating a gut-friendly diet, managing stress, staying hydrated, exercising, and supporting nutrient absorption and elimination through dietary supplements, we can optimize the performance of our digestive tract. Taking proactive steps to care for our gut health pays dividends through improved energy, immunity, mood, and whole-body wellness.

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