When it comes to your digestive system, there’s a lot to understand.
Sure, you know the basics: Your body uses fuel then creates waste. Not much to talk about, right? Wrong.
The term “digestive system” is to be taken literally. Like the system that powers your car or computer, there are several separate parts to your digestive system. These individual parts perform complex functions — they extract nutrients and move waste through your body.
But as you may assume, one issue along the way can alter the whole operation.
Researchers are discovering new things about the digestive system all the time. New wisdom shows that different parts of your body, not traditionally considered to be a part of the digestive system, can actually affect digestion.
Some of the body parts being discussed don’t even seem like they’d be related to the process. So, if you’re going to improve your digestive health, you may have to think beyond changing what you eat. Implementing supplements or adjusting even certain habits could potentially help you boost digestive function.
So, how does it all work?
The Major Players In Your Digestive System
To begin, let’s cover the various components of the digestive system. Of course, each component maintains a shared purpose, but its own function. So, let’s start simply with a piece of food.
Food enters the digestive tract at the mouth and passes by the salivary glands. It gets chewed up to become a piece the body can swallow. And saliva is an important component in this process. You see, your saliva prepares the food you eat for the later stages of digestion. Ever wonder why you salivate when you see or smell food? Your body’s getting ready to process the food you eat.
Next, your mouth and throat contain muscles that push the food you eat into your esophagus. Here, the muscles push food toward your stomach — the hub of digestion. Here, food starts to get broken down by a combination of digestive enzymes and acid.
Now, when food travels from your stomach into the duodenum, other digestive organs can begin to do their work. These guys focus on helping your body process nutrients.
- Your pancreas helps break down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
- Your liver helps digest fats.
- Your small intestine is where much of the nutrient absorption takes place1
By the time the food you ate is ready to pass through the large intestine, it’s mostly water, electrolytes, and waste.
And did you know your large intestine serves a dual purpose? It’s true. For starters, it uses its muscles to push waste through your body. But it also absorbs most of the water from the food you ate to create waste.
But, Where Can Things Go Wrong?
Well, statistics show that approximately 32.3 million people in the U.S. went to the doctor with digestive issues in 2015. Not only that, digestive concerns sent 8.6 million people to the emergency room.2 So, what are some of the most prominent digestive issues? Take a look:
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
Not all digestive conditions are deadly, but many can cause significant discomfort. Gastroesophageal reflux, also known as severe heartburn, is a good example. This condition occurs when the valve between the stomach and esophagus becomes weak. As a result, stomach acid climbs up into the esophagus. This can lead to irritation and inflammation.3
Certain food sensitivities can factor into major digestive disorders, as is the case with celiac disease. While this issue actually starts in the immune system, when the system detects gluten, it goes on the attack, damaging the small intestine. This can lead to a variety of symptoms including, but not limited to abdominal pain, constipation, depression, and even fatigue.4
Diverticulosis takes place in the colon, at the end of the large intestine. Small pouches form and push outward through weak spots in the wall of the colon. Most people with diverticulosis don’t actually exhibit symptoms beyond severe abdominal pain. Dietary changes are a big part of supporting diverticulosis recovery.5
Crohn’s Disease is a bit unnerving because it’s not clear what causes it yet. The Crohn’s patient often experiences general inflammation and irritation in the digestive tract. Symptoms include diarrhea, cramping, and weight loss. And a doctor’s treatment usually centers around reducing inflammation in the small and large intestines.6
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome is less of a disease and more of a cluster of symptoms. These include discomfort and changes in bowel movement appearance and frequency. In some cases, certain foods may increase incidences of these symptoms.7
Now, some digestive issues, like gas or incontinence, can stem from other issues. Furthermore, there can be indirect consequences to digestive issues. For example, your ability to process certain nutrients may grow weaker. And even with a balanced diet, you may not be able to get the necessary fuel your body needs.
New Facts On The Digestive Tract
Chances are you’ve already read about the human microbiome and gut flora. Evidence suggests gut flora may play a role in immune function and weight maintenance as well. Some people take probiotics, or eat probiotic foods, to try and “balance” their gut flora.
Also, new evidence suggests psychological stress could influence gastrointestinal stress.8 For example, digestion slows or even stops in fight-or-flight situations. Furthermore, minor stresses may be enough to trigger abdominal pain or similar symptoms. So, how can you support better digestive function?
Better Living To Support Digestion
It should come as no surprise that your body already has the tools it needs to digest food. But you can help your body by focusing on enhancing the tools you already have.
Proper Medical Care
If you’re struggling with digestion, or suspect you have a digestive related disorder, the first step should ALWAYS be to speak to a healthcare professional.
While there’s a lot of information online, there’s no one better than your doctor to help solve your unique health puzzles, and offer a plan to help you feel your best. So if you’re experiencing extended digestive discomfort, your best bet is seeking out help from your doctor.
Fiber-rich foods can help when it comes to things like settling your stomach. High-fiber foods like grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans are great to add to your diet. Fiber is an important fuel for the digestive process and helps prevent constipation.9
Water intake is also very important. Drinking enough water can keep your system on the healthier side of things.
Conversely, keep notes to see if certain foods make you feel sensitive or uncomfortable. If nothing else, you may learn which foods you need to avoid to keep feeling great.
Your body responds to stress in various ways and your entire system could be affected by those responses. Your digestive system isn’t any different.
If you can find ways to lower your stress levels, you may improve your digestion.10 For some, cutting stress out will be harder than it is for others. One good, low-cost practice is meditation. Studies have shown that meditation helped to reduce symptoms of various digestive disorders.
Digestion In Review
What can you do if you notice your digestive system is compromised in some way? It’s a loaded, layered question, but there are solutions are out there.
Well, education is a key first step to understanding how this system works and how it can help put you on the right track. So, read up. Researchers are beginning to discover new things about the digestive system all the time and if you stay well-researched you’ll likely be among those who feel the best.
Learn More About the Gut:
5 Signs of Probiotic Deficiency
The Importance of Gut Health & How It Affects Your Brain
Fact: Your Gut Bacteria Could Be Impacting Your Mood