Our digestive system (aka gastrointestinal tract) is vital for keeping us healthy. Its primary role is to break down your food into its basic nutrients for your body to use.
What you eat and drink significantly dictates the health of your digestive system and therefore your overall well-being. It directly affects every system in your body.
Given that your digestive health relies so heavily on what you eat and drink, and most western diets are not high enough in vegetables and fruit, it is not uncommon for clients to come into our clinic with digestive complaints, or to have health issues related to poor digestive function. And most of us have experienced digestive complaints at some point in our lives, whether they be short-lived infections or more chronic, ongoing issues.
So what organs make up your digestive system? What are some of the signs of poor digestive function? And what are some simple ways to improve your digestion?
What makes up your digestive system?
The digestive system starts at the mouth and ends with the anus. It includes the oesophagus, stomach, small intestine and large intestine. It relies on organs such as the liver, pancreas and gallbladder to support the break down, absorption and utilisation of nutrients to keep us alive and well.
Your digestion processes actually start when we look at and smell food.
By taking the time to smell your food you are signalling to your stomach to start producing gastric juices in readiness for food. Then the act of chewing our food and mixing it will saliva begins the process of fat, protein and carbohydrate digestion.
The stomach starts to break down proteins and some nutrients such as non-haem iron, calcium and B12. It also absorbs some minerals such as iodine and copper. The stomach does this by producing gastric juices such as hydrochloric acid and pepsinogen.
The production of hydrochloric acid and pepsinogen require nutrients such as protein, zinc, B6 and magnesium. Eating a diet rich in these nutrients helps the stomach produce and secrete adequate gastric juices to stimulate your appetite and breakdown food. If you don’t have enough of these gastric juices you may experience symptoms such as:
- Cramping immediately after eating
- A lack of appetite
- Slow bowel transit time (the time it takes for your food to be eaten and then excreted in the stool)
- Undigested food in your stool
The small intestine is approximately 500 – 600 cm in length and most of our digestion takes place here. It has three main parts, the duodenum, the jejunum and the ileum. The pancreas and gallbladder support digestion here by releasing enzymes and bile that help to breakdown protein, carbohydrates and fats into molecules that can be absorbed through the intestinal lining into our bloodstream for use by our cells.
The small intestine, like the stomach, is a sterile environment, or contains a small amount of bacteria which usually live in harmony with its host. However, if this environment is disrupted by having low levels of gastric juices, or an overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria (sometimes referred to as SIBO or small intestine bacterial overgrowth), there can be significant disruptions to your digestive health.
The lining of the small intestine acts as a barrier, stopping bacteria and unwanted food particles from entering the blood stream. In the case of food intolerances or allergies, or if you eat too many inflammatory foods, this barrier may be compromised and become ‘leaky’. This may contribute to immune reactions and other symptoms in other parts of your body.
You may need to address the health of your small intestine if you experience the following:
- Constipation and/or diarrhoea
- Headaches, allergies, food intolerances, autoimmune conditions and recurrent infections
- Eruptive skin conditions such as hives, eczema and psoriasis
- Excess burping and flatulence
- A worsening of symptoms if you eat fermented foods
The large intestine includes the caecum, colon, rectum and anus. This is where your microflora live (well the majority of them anyway) and this microflora breaks down any remaining carbohydrates and proteins. Your microflora perform a wonderful process called fermentation which produces Vitamin K and some B Vitamins (like B12), as well as supports your immune system by taking care of any pathogenic and opportunistic bacteria, fungi and yeasts. You can read more about how your microflora impacts your health here.
If your large intestine isn’t functioning as well as it should you may experience:
- Blood or mucous in the stool (always get this checked out by a GP)
- Pain on bowel movements
How can you improve your digestion?
We’ve previously written about 5 easy and effective ways to improve your digestion, but if that’s not enough, here are 5 more.
Take your time to look at and smell your food before you start eating. As mentioned above, this stimulates the production of your gastric juices in readiness for food and therefore supports the breakdown of food.
So, eat your meals away from screens and take your time to chew each mouthful.
Enjoy some bitter foods before and with your meal
Bitter foods stimulate your appetite to produce gastric juices and saliva.
Lemon water 30 minutes prior to your meals gets your gastric juices flowing in readiness for your meal and is also a lovely tonic for your liver.
Foods such as rocket, dill, radish, kale and spinach are bitter foods so if you think you have issues with your digestion enjoy a salad with some of these ingredients with your meals.
Avoid drinking with a meal
Drinking with a meal dilutes your gastric juices and therefore your food may not break down as efficiently. So wait 30 minutes after eating before you drink any liquids.
Up your vegetable intake
Almost everyone in Australia could do with increasing their daily vegetable intake. Vegetables provide fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients which all support a healthy digestive tract. Some vegetables such as leeks, garlic and onions are also prebiotics which feed the good bacteria in your bowel.
Include probiotic rich foods into your meals
Probiotic foods include organic natural yoghurt, miso, tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir etc. These foods provide beneficial bacteria to your large intestine and supports the health of your digestive tract. If you notice an increase in your symptoms when eating these types of foods then get in touch. We may need to do some investigation to determine if the cause of your complaints is small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
Does your digestion need some help?
As a naturopath I love talking to my clients about their digestion as it plays such a vital role in our health. So if you have resonated with any of the signs or symptoms outlined above, please get in touch so I can help you optimise your digestive system, and your overall health. Depending on your individual problems, I will tailor a treatment plan specific to your needs.
When your digestion is optimised so is your overall health and well-being.