The digestive system and keeping it healthy

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A healthy digestive system is a happy system

A healthy stomach and digestive system are incredibly important when it comes to our general health and physical condition.

The digestive system is involved with a number of functions in the body.  Its three primary tasks include:

  • Food digestion
  • Nutrient absorption
  • Waste disposal

Parts of the digestive system and how they work

Let’s take a closer look at the digestive system in more detail, looking specifically at its functions and parts of the body which form it.

The digestive systems role is to facilitate the entry, absorption and exit of all water, food and nutrients to the body.

The digestive system has other tasks as well, including the production of energy, facilitating blood flow, nerve signalling, control of hormones, control of metabolism and detoxification of the body.

  • Mouth: The starting point of the digestive cycle, the mouth and teeth begin the process of breaking down the food. Saliva (containing enzymes) breakdown the meal as soon as we begin to eat. The enzymes turn the food into something the body can absorb, for example, carbohydrates are turned into simple sugars.
  • Oesophagus: This pipe connects the mouth with the stomach, the food travels down it through a process called peristalsis. This is where waves of muscular contractions ensure that the food reaches the stomach.
  • Stomach: Here food is stored and broken down into a liquid form called chyme. The stomach also contains enzymes which further break down food to be absorbed by the body, for example protein broken down into amino acids.   Hydrochloric acid in the stomach helps to activate these digestive enzymes as well as sterilize the food.
  • Small intestine: Once the food in your stomach is completely liquefied it enters the small intestine which is around 21 foot long! The small intestine is broken up into three sections, the duodenum, jejunum and the ileum. The duodenum continues the process of breaking down food entering it. The jejunum and ileum are where the nutrients from the food are absorbed into the body.
  • Pancreas: Digestive enzymes are released by the pancreas into the small intestine and they help with breaking down carbohydrates, proteins and fats.   The pancreas is involved in the production of two hormones, insulin and glucagon, which regulate blood glucose levels.
  • Liver: Nutrients absorbed during the digestive process are passed through the liver, for example simple sugars from carbohydrates which are converted into glucose.  The liver also produces bile which helps to break up dietary fat.
  • Gallbladder: The gallbladder takes bile from the liver and stores it. It is then passed down the bile duct into the small intestine while a person eats.
  • Colon/Large intestine: The remains of the food (mostly consisting of fibre, water and secretions from the small intestine) pass through into the colon/large intestine. The colon/large intestine then absorbs electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. It compresses the remaining leftovers into solid waste where it can be expelled from the body in the form of stools. The colon also contains healthy bacteria which help with digestion and disease protection.

Building and maintaining a healthy digestive system

A healthy digestive system relies on the following:

  • Intestinal bacteria in balance.
  • An intact stomach lining.
  • An immune system that is healthy (around 70% of our cells of our immune systems are found in our digestive system).

Follow these simple and easy steps to help transform and keep your digestive system healthy.

  • Cut out any foods that cause digestive problems such as bloating and cramping. You know your body better than anyone; therefore you will know which foods cause distress and problems to your digestive system. Foods that can cause problems in the digestive system include:
    • Refined sugars
    • Refined grains
    • MSG
    • Alcohol
  • Stress, illness, too little sleep, some antibiotics and poor diet can cause the good bacteria in your digestive tract to dwindle. This can be corrected with over the counter medication or by eating yoghurt incorporating probiotics.
  • Only eat when hungry and stop as soon as you are feeling full. This ensures that your digestive system has processed all previous meals and can process the meal you are currently eating.
  • Eat slowly and chew properly. By eating slowly you allow your brain to register fullness. Chewing food properly allows enzymes in your saliva to begin breaking food down.
  • If you suffer with Irritable Bowel Syndrome have your vitamin D levels checked. Low vitamin D levels can also decrease the immune function of your digestive system.
  • Omega 3 found in nuts, fish, flaxseeds and some vegetables helps to prevent and can relieve inflammation in the digestive system.
  • Exercise helps food to move through our digestive systems faster and help to make us more regular. Be careful however, as excessive exercise can be detrimental as blood is pumped to your muscles while other processes are slowed down including digestion. Never eat a large meal before you exercise.
  • Eat proper food including whole grains, lean protein, fruit and vegetables. Avoid all processed foods and refined carbohydrates as they can interfere with the digestive system.
  • Ensure at least 25g – 35g of fibre in your diet each day. Fibre helps with the whole digestive process, reduces cholesterol levels, helps to control blood sugar levels and improves cardiovascular health.
  • Drink plenty of water as your digestive system needs liquid to operate efficiently. Remaining hydrated can also prevent overeating.
  • Exercise portion control. Eat small plates of food thus preventing the digestive system been placed under stress by trying to digest large amounts of food.
  • Avoid fried foods and foods with preservatives.   These can cause the digestive system to produce more stomach acid and can lead to gastric reflux.
  • Choose organic, none chemically treated foods.

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