The Digestive System: How it Works and How You Can Keep it Healthy
Digestive disorders are becoming more and more common with problems with the digestive system becoming more apparent. Complaints such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), Coeliac Disease, Food intolerances/allergies are all on the rise. The reasons for this are unknown/unproven but looking at how our diet and lifestyle have changed over the years it could be possibly down to any or all of the following reasons:
Increased consumption of processed foods
Artificial additives/preservatives/colours in our food
Fruits and vegetables sprayed with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides
Fast foods, eating on the go, eating too much and too fast
Increased consumption of stimulants e.g. coffee, tea, alcohol
Increased pace of life and stress levels
Use of antibiotics
I have put together this information to show how you can keep your gut healthy and prevent developing digestive ailments in the first place. To start with I feel it would be worthwhile explaining what the digestive system is and how it works.
The Digestive System
Your digestive system is basically a long tube that stretches from your mouth and finishes at your anus, with many different processes taking place along the way. It consists of the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, liver & gall bladder, pancreas, small intestine, large intestine, rectum and anus. The purpose of the digestive system is to:
Break down carbohydrates, protein and fats into small, simple molecules so that they can be absorbed through the gut wall into the blood stream
To absorb fluids into the blood stream
Neutralise any toxins that have made their way into your digestive system
To excrete any waste
Mouth: Digestion starts in the mouth. Saliva contains enzymes that start the process of breaking down carbohydrates and fats into simple forms. The more you chew your food then the more you increase the surface area for the different enzymes to get to work. Saliva also adds moisture to your food so it can move easily through the digestive system. Chewing your food well also sends important messages to the stomach to tell it to start producing gastric acid and other enzymes.
Oesophagus: This is the food tube that leads from the mouth to the stomach.
Stomach: Hydrochloric acid and an enzyme called peptin are released into the stomach which breaks down proteins into amino acids. The breakdown of fats also starts in the stomach. The acid in the stomach also helps to kill off any bacteria on the food.
Liver: Releases bile into the gall bladder where it is stored.
Gall bladder: Releases bile into the digestive tract to emulsify fats. This helps with the breakdown of fats and its absorption.
Pancreas: Releases enzymes into the small intestine which breaks carbohydrates and fats into simple forms.
Small intestine: Releases more enzymes to break carbohydrates and proteins down further. Once the carbohydrates, proteins and fats have been broken down into small enough molecules then they can be absorbed through the small intestine wall into the blood stream.
Large intestine: Any undigested food and waste is passed into the large intestine where any water is absorbed through the wall of the large intestine and into the blood stream. Any undigested food, fibre and any other waste from the digestion process moves down through the large intestine to the rectum/anus and is excreted.
Gut bacteria: Although gut bacteria (also known as gut flora) is not a physical part of the digestive system, as such, it is still an intrinsic part of your system to ensure digestion takes place. The gut contains approx 100 trillion bacteria and is responsible for:
Neutralising some toxic by-products of digestion
Discourage “bad” bacteria and yeast overgrowth
Stimulates the digestive process and the absorption of nutrients
Produces Vitamin B and K in the gut
Therefore it is really important that we take measures to ensure that our healthy gut bacteria can flourish and grow.
To keep the digestive system working well there are certain measures that you can take to keep it healthy and prevent any problems occurring.
Top Tips for a Healthy Digestive System
Eat a Healthy Diet Your diet needs to contain a good balance of the following food groups:
Protein: For repair and maintenance of body tissue and building muscles. Found in poultry, fish, beans, pulses, tofu, milk, eggs
Carbohydrates: For energy. Found in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and cereals, beans and pulses
Vitamins and minerals: For many and varied functions such as hormone production, digestion, liver function plus much more. Found in most foods but fresh fruits and vegetables are always a very good source
Essential fatty acids: Needed for energy, brain functioning, skin health and hair growth. Found in avocados, nuts, oily fish, seeds and vegetable oils
Fibre: Essentially a carbohydrate that is needed to keep the digestive system healthy and functioning properly. Found in plant based foods e.g. fruits, vegetables, beans, pulses, wholemeal cereals and grains
Fluids: The body is made up of approx. 75% fluid so is important for our health and wellbeing. Drink plenty of water or herbal teas especially ginger, peppermint or fennel, these are particularly good for your digestive system.
Some other things to consider include:
Eat plenty of different coloured fruits and vegetables to be sure you’re getting all the vitamins and minerals you need
Eat fresh fruit and vegetables to ensure optimum nutrition. Food that has been frozen, canned or dried may have 50% less of its nutritional value.
Raw fruit and vegetables are better than cooked as cooking can destroy some nutrients.
Eat plenty of fresh home cooked food, making use of plenty of fresh, wholesome ingredients.
Use organic when you can to reduce the intake of chemical pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers
Use unsaturated fats such as olive oil, safflower, sunflower, nuts, seeds, avocados.
Use olive oil for cooking as it is the most stable of all fats when heated to a high temperature. Use sunflower oil/safflower oil etc for dressings as it contains vitamin E.
Use dairy free milks instead of dairy milk, however always check the ingredients. Some manufacturers produce cheaper dairy free milks by using more water and less nuts and adding sugars and thickeners to make up for it. I have found Rude Health to be one of the best.
Avoid or reduce your consumption:
Saturated fats such as butter, lard, cheese and margarine
Tea, coffee, alcohol and fizzy drinks
Artificial additives, preservatives and colours
Sugar and salt
Mindful eating involves paying full attention to the experience of eating and drinking, both inside and outside the body. It is a technique that helps you gain control over your eating habits. It helps you to:
Eat slowly and chew your food well which will help with digestion
To be aware of all your senses when eating so you get more pleasure out of your food
To notice when you’re full so you can stop
When eating your food it is important that you “make a meal of it”, so to speak:
Sit down, turn off the TV
Eat slowly and savour the moment and the experience of eating
Use your senses to the full, notice the sight, smell, taste, texture, temperature
Chew food well
Put your knife and fork down between each mouth full
Constantly check in with your body to see whether you are full or not
Stop eating when you are full
Taking these things into consideration during eating can help to improve your relationship with food and improve the health of your digestive system. Additionally you may not be aware but people who eat slowly are more likely to recognise when they are full and stop eating before they have finished which can help with weight loss.
If you want to know more about mindful eating click here.
I have found that in many cases digestive disorders start shortly after a particularly stressful period in someone’s life, therefore it is essential to manage your stress levels if you want to avoid developing digestive problems.
When you are stressed the body produces a number of hormones to prepare you for “fight or flight”. When this happens certain non-essential functions within the body are suppressed and others prioritised, for example blood is diverted from the digestive system to the muscles in case there is a real need to fight or run. As you can imagine if you are continually stressed then blood is continually being diverted from the digestive system. This affects the digestion of your food. Due to the poor blood supply nutrients are unable to pass across the gut wall in to the blood stream effectively. This means that food can be sitting around in the gut which can lead to food rotting. This can lead to an overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria and yeast in the digestive system and lead to further problems in the gut. It is therefore important to ensure you watch your stress levels if you want to prevent developing gut problems.
There are a variety of relaxation techniques that have been shown to help people to decrease their stress levels. These include meditation (you don’t need to be spiritual to meditate), Mindfulness, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery etc. You can find plenty of guided visualisations, meditations and relaxation music on Youtube that can help with stress levels. Headspace is a good app to encourage daily meditation. Once you have found something that suits you then it is important to do these techniques on a daily basis, this way you will get the best results.
Look After Your Gut Flora
I have already mentioned above about how important it is to manage your stress levels as this can cause an overgrowth of yeast and bad bacteria. Once the bad bacteria and yeast gets a hold this can prevent the growth of your good gut bacteria and further affect your digestion.
Your good gut bacteria can also be killed off by taking antibiotics. When you take antibiotics to kill off an infection, it is not selective in which bacteria it kills off and can kill off your good bacteria. Of course I’m not suggesting that you don’t take antibiotics if they have been prescribed by your doctor, however once you have finished a course of antibiotics it is important that you take measures to replenish the good gut bacteria as follows:
Probiotics: Take a good quality probiotic; these can be found in capsule form and contain the same type of bacteria that exist in your gut. Taking these capsules will help to replace any that have been killed off. Do not take probiotics with a hot drink or food as this can kill off the bacteria. Probiotics can also be found in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir and miso.
Prebiotics: This is a non-digestible plant fibre that promotes the growth of healthy gut flora. It can be found in raw garlic, onions, leeks, dandelion greens, jerusalem artichokes, bananas, raw wheat bran and baked wheat flour. You can also take prebiotics in supplement form.
If all else fails...
If you are experiencing gut problems and you have tried including these ideas into your daily life then you may need to try an elimination diet and further support from a therapist. Find out how I can help you overcome digestive disorders here.
Disclaimer: Always consult with your GP before embarking on any health programme.
The Optimum Nutrition Bible – Patrick Holford
Good gut Healing – Kathryn Marsden
Gut Reaction – Gudrun Johnson