Your Digestive System:
A Quick Overview
You are 30 feet long. “No I’m not” you might think and you are right. But your gastrointestinal (GI) tract is. The GI, which makes up your digestive system is around 9 meters (30 feet) long. Every time I read this I’m amazed how all of this fits into our body.
Needless to say, your digestive system is not only pretty long, it’s also pretty important for your health, both physically and mentally.
What is your digestive system?
Your digestive system starts with your mouth and ends at your anus and in between there is a lot going on.
After the food enters your mouth, you chew and swallow it, which pushes it down the esophagus. At the end of the esophagus, there is the pyloric sphincter, which opens up and lets the food into the stomach. After the stomach the food is moving through the small and large intestine until it gets “collected” in the rectum, waiting to be pushed out during a bowel movement.
That’s a really short summarization of what happens after you eat something.
Every part of the digestive system contributes to your digestion, which is basically the extraction of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, etc. from the foods you eat.
Besides this GI tract, (the tube that goes through your body), there are also some other organs that are part of your digestion. The two most important ones are the liver and the pancreas. We’ll get to them shortly.
Let’s look at the different parts in a bit more detail.
Mouth: As soon as you put food into your mouth the digestive process already starts. Saliva is produced by the salivary glands, which are below your tongue and on both inner sides of your checks. It contains enzymes that break down starches in your food, i.e. carbohydrates from whole-grain bread or legumes.
That’s why it’s important that you chew your food long enough. It’s helpful for the digestion of carbohydrates.
If you chew bread long enough it starts to taste slightly sweet, because all the starch is broken down into sugar molecules.
Esophagus/pyloric sphincter: The main job of the esophagus is to transport food from your mouth to your stomach. The pyloric sphincter’s main job is actually the opposite, to prevent food and stomach acid from your stomach to enter the esophagus & the mouth. It also opens the stomach to let food in.
If you ever suffered from heartburn then you probably had some trouble with your pyloric sphincter, but the foods you eat and the speed of eating could also contribute to this problem.
Stomach: Your stomach basically stores your food and mixes it together, using its lower muscle. The stomach acid which is produced by glands in the stomach lining breaks down proteins.
If you’re experiencing stomach cramps it’s probably because your stomach lining is damaged and since the stomach is a muscle, made up of proteins, the acid attacks the stomach as well.
When food enters your stomach, chemicals are triggered that signal your brain that you are satiated. Unfortunately, it takes the brain about 20 minutes to register these chemicals, which is why it’s important to slow down during eating to prevent overeating.
Small intestine: The small intestine is by far the longest part of the GI tract. It uses several digestive juices, from the liver, pancreas and itself to further break down starches, carbohydrates, and proteins. It’s also the place where most extracted materials get absorbed into the bloodstream, which transports them to the rest of your body.
Large intestine/colon: The large intestine is most of your gut microbes are. The main job of the colon is to extract salt, water, and nutrients from this liquid waste and transforms it to a solid stool.
Recent research focuses much more on your microbes, also called microbiota, or gut microbes, as they seem to have more impact on your health than we originally thought.
If you suffer from diarrhoea, the processes that extract water are usually disrupted. It’s important to drink enough water and get enough salts and minerals when you suffer from diarrhoea to replace the lost ones.
Rectum: The rectum basically collects the stool and pushes it out during the bowel movement.
The other to organs that are not part of the GI tract, but are important for your digestion are the pancreas and the liver.
Pancreas: The pancreas produces digestive juices which are delivered to the small intestine, that break down carbohydrates, protein, and fats.
Liver: The liver produces bile, which is a digestive juice stored in the gallbladder between meals. When the bile is needed, the gallbladder pumps the bile into the small intestines, where it is used to dissolve fat, so they can get absorbed by the pancreatic and intestinal enzymes.
Why should you know about your digestive system?
Your digestive system is one of the most important parts of your body, so you should definitely know a few things about it. I remember learning about it in school, but it wasn’t really relevant for me back then. No one explained to me that eating a lot of sugar can cause inflammation in the gut and disrupt the microbiome. No one told me about any negative consequences, which is why I probably couldn’t care less.
Today that’s different. I know how important the digestive system is and I think everyone should know about that. If it doesn’t work properly you won’t feel good. It’s as simple as that.
It basically determines how you feel and if you get all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals you need, you will feel better. If you eat a balanced diet your microbiome will be in balances as well and a balanced microbiome contributes to your well-being. Both physically and mentally.
There are also a lot of things that influence your digestion. Stress, exercise, sleep and of course the food you eat, all can contribute to a proper digestion. Of course, every person is different, but there are a few general tips I’d like to mention, which I’ve probably mentioned before.
– Eat slowly. As you just read, your stomach needs 20 minutes to signal your brain that it’s full. Eating too fast will cause overeating, which will contribute to weight gain.
– Eat naturally. As you can probably guess, your body wasn’t designed to eat and digest chemicals. You might argue that the amounts of chemicals in the food are too small to have an impact, but I wouldn’t be so sure. We’ve only started adding all those chemical substances a couple of decades ago, so there is assurance that there won’t be any negative effects.
– Get enough sleep. If you don’t sleep enough your hunger and satiety hormones get out of balance. You’ll feel hungrier and eat more. Too little sleep might also have negative effects on your microbiome.
– Move. I don’t say exercise because moving, in general, is a good start. Especially if you move around after a meal, for example by taking a walk, it aids your digestion, because it increases blood flow.
– Relax. I know, it’s easier said than done, but try to make it a habit to eat in peace. No cellphone, no computer, just the food and you. Not only will your food taste better, it will also contribute to your health. If you suffer from heartburn relaxing while eating could definitely have positive effects on that.
That’s it for now. Remember, it all starts with one step. Stop the time when you’re eating and I bet you will be amazed. Most of us, myself included, eat a whole meal within a couple of minutes. You’ll be amazed by how long 20 minutes will feel and I bet you will feel better afterwards.
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