Digestive Health

What is the digestive system?

The digestive system is also known as the gastrointestinal system. It is a group of organs that are responsible for breaking down and converting the food you eat into forms that can be used by your body. Your digestive system extracts the nutrients from the food that you’ve eaten and supplies it to the parts of your body that needs it.

Your gastrointestinal system breaks down food into their parts: carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and vitamins. The blood absorbs these nutrients and transports them to the various body cells. These nutrients energize your cells. It is important to note that without these nutrients, no part of your body can function properly. This explains how important digestion is to your body.

How does the digestive system work?

Digestion begins in the mouth. when you eat, the food moves from your mouth into your esophagus. From the esophagus, it gets into your stomach, and from the stomach, it moves through the intestines (both small and large), and finally through the anus. We also have what is known as accessory organs in our bodies. They are not components of the digestive system, but they assist in digestive function. These organs include the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder. These organs produce chemicals that enhance digestive function.

All the organs mentioned work together to ensure proper digestion of foods and fluids, as well as a steady supply of nutrients to all parts of the body. Some organs of the digestive system are hollow. Some are solid. Contractions of muscles of the digestive tract help the food you eat to move through the system. The contraction of the muscles of the digestive system is called peristalsis.

Hollow organs of the digestive system

The mouth

Digestion of food begins in the mouth. Food is chewed in the mouth. the salivary glands in the mouth release saliva which helps in the digestion of starch. The saliva contains enzymes that accelerate the digestion of starchy foods.

Esophagus

It is a long tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. Food from the mouth passes through the esophagus into the stomach.

Stomach

When food gets into your esophagus, it moves down slowly. Once it gets to the end of the esophagus, a sphincter opens. This sphincter is known as the gastroesophageal sphincter. The opening of the gastroesophageal sphincter allows food to move into the stomach. When the food gets into the stomach, the muscles of the stomach will begin to contract. The contraction of the gastric muscles causes the food to mix with digestive juices. These juices have an acidic nature and are secreted by glands in the stomach. The gastric acid breaks down protein foods. Eventually, the food in the stomach moves into the small intestine.

Small intestine

Contraction of the intestine muscles helps the food in the small intestine to mix with the digestive juices secreted by the small intestine, liver, and pancreas. As the food moves towards the large intestine, the juices continue in its work of breaking down the food into its simplest components. Nutrients are absorbed by the walls of the small intestine and delivered into the general circulation (the bloodstream). The blood then transports these nutrients to the various cells of the body.

Large intestine

Your digestive system does not break down everything that gets into it. Dead cells, undigested food, and waste are pushed into the large intestine. The large intestine has a large absorbing capacity. It absorbs water and other nutrients from the waste. After absorbing, it transforms the waste into a solid stool. The stool is stored in your rectum until it is time for expulsion. Expulsion occurs via a bowel movement.

The hollow organs of the digestive system play very important roles in the digestive process. However, solid organs also have critical roles to play. They secrete chemicals that enhance digestive function. Let’s look at these organs.

Solid organs of the digestive system

Pancreas

The pancreas lies in the upper part of your abdomen, right behind your stomach. It produces and secretes digestive juices that aid the digestion of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. It also produces chemicals that regulate blood sugar levels, which in turn affects your body’s energy usage.

Liver

The liver is one of the largest organs in the body. It lies above the stomach. The liver produces bile. Bile is stored in the gallbladder. Bile helps in the emulsification (breakdown) of fats. The liver also serves as a storage organ. It also helps to flush toxins from your body.

Gallbladder

The gallbladder serves as storage for bile. During the digestion process, the bile is released by the gallbladder into the small intestine where it breaks down fatty foods.

Problems associated with the digestive system

Sometimes, the digestive system runs into problems, and thus fails to work as well as it should. This results in various forms of discomfort and even major health issues. Common problems associated with the digestive system include:

Gallstones

Gallstones are solidified chunks of digestive fluid. They usually form in the gallbladder. Gallstones vary in sizes. Some can be as small as a grain of sand, while others can be as large as a golf ball. Someone may have just one gallstone or several at a time. Some people do not need treatment for their stones. Others, on the other hand, may require surgery to get it out.

There are two major types of gallstones: bilirubin and cholesterol gallstones. Cholesterol gallstones are made of cholesterol. They are usually yellow. On the other hand, bilirubin gallstones have a black or dark brown color and contain a lot of bilirubin. Bilirubin is a byproduct of red blood cell breakdown.

A small gallstone doesn’t usually cause any symptoms. However, a large gallstone may cause several symptoms. These include:

  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Jaundice
  • Upper right abdominal pain that radiates to the right shoulder blades.
  • Clay-colored stools

Acid reflux & GERD

Acid reflux is caused by the backflow of bile or gastric acid into the esophagus. It causes heartburn and other symptoms that can create a great deal of discomfort. Many people have experienced acid reflux at some point in their lives. It is very common after taking heavy meals or hot, spicy foods. However, if you experience acid reflux more than two times per week, then you may be diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease. Acid reflux may cause discomfort, but GERD is more severe and can cause health complications.

Symptoms of GERD and acid reflux include:

  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Heartburn (a burning sensation in your chest)
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A sour taste at the back of your mouth
  • A lump feeling in your throat
  • Regurgitating sour liquid or food
  • Burping

Hemorrhoids

They are also known as piles. Hemorrhoids are swollen veins in the lower rectum or around the anus. There are two types of hemorrhoids: internal and external. Internal hemorrhoids lie inside the rectum. External hemorrhoids are located under the skin surrounding the anus.

Symptoms of hemorrhoids include:

  • Irritation or itching around the anus
  • Bleeding during bowel movement
  • Swelling around the anus
  • Pain around the anus
  • Stool leakage
  • A lump near the anus

Hemorrhoids are somewhat uncomfortable. However, they can be treated with over-the-counter creams, suppositories, or ointments. Severe forms may be corrected with surgery.

You must consult your doctor if you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above. Also, see your doctor if you experience bleeding or pain.

Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome is a collection of symptoms that peculiar to the large intestine. They cause pain and discomfort. IBC is a chronic condition that requires long-term treatment. Most IBS patients can control their symptoms through diet and lifestyle modification. Sometimes, the symptoms may be very severe, thus requiring medication and counseling.

Common symptoms of IBS include:

How to keep your digestive health in top shape

Maintaining the health of your digestive system keeps you in top shape and prevents you from experiencing digestive problems.

The following tips might be of help:

  • Eat at least 7 servings of vegetables and fruits daily. Veggies and fruits are enriched with minerals, fiber, vitamins, prebiotics, and enzymes that boost your digestive health.
  • Eat whole-grain cereals, pasta, and bread. They are more enriched with nutrients and fiber as compared to the white grain products.
  • Avoid hot dogs, sausages, and other processed meats. They may cause some problems with your digestive system. Also, moderate your intake of lamb, pork, and beef. They may contain bacteria that are harmful to your digestive system.
  • Vitamin D and calcium are important for your digestive health. Eat calcium-rich foods such as tofu, milk, and yogurt. Vitamin D supplements are also helpful.
  • Regular exercise is very important. Do some moderate to vigorous exercise for at least 30 minutes three days weekly.

Being overweight or underweight can put you at risk of digestive problems. A healthy diet and an active lifestyle can minimize your risk. If you are struggling to gain or lose weight, talk to your doctor. They will guide you appropriately.