Understanding your Digestive System
Our digestive tract is our direct link to the outside world as this is where all the food and drinks that we ingest goes through. This is where the protein, carbohydrate and fat components that we take in through our mouth are broken down to molecules that our body can use to produce energy, repair and regenerate tissue as well as maintain ideal function for all bodily processes.
After more than 30 years of treating many thousands of people in my chiropractic clinic I have come to realize that the digestive system plays a vital role in overall health, both in the healing and maintenance aspects.
Having a better understanding of the role your digestive tract plays in keeping you healthy can go a long way in helping prevent a lot of problems.
The digestive tract is 25 to 30 feet long and will process anywhere from 27,000 to 45,000 Kgs (60,000 to 100,000 pounds) of food during your lifetime! Digestion is both a physical and chemical process with many organs taking part.
The four primary functions of the digestive tract include:
- Secretion: Producing digestive enzymes and preparing food for absorption.
- Motor/Peristaltic Movement: Transporting food through the digestive system from the mouth to the anus.
- Absorption: Assimilation of nutrients released through digestion.
- Elimination: Disposal of toxic waste products.
While the saying, You are what you eat, has a lot of merit, it should more accurately say You are what you digest. The digestive process is very intricate and complex and there are many areas where it could malfunction, especially when you look at the diversity in what people eat.
Digestion begins in the mouth where salivary glands will release enzymes to start the breakdown of foods, mainly starch. Ingested food is broken into small particles by the teeth. The more you chew your food, the smaller the particles; the smaller the particles, the easier it is for enzymes to release the trapped nutrients. Before swallowing, chew your food thoroughly or digestion becomes incomplete before you’ve even started.
When the food is swallowed it moves through the esophagus to your stomach. The esophagus, like the rest of the digestive tract, has layers of circular and vertical muscles that produce a squeezing, rippling action called peristalsis.
The stomach is a pear-shaped elastic bag that has two main purposes: storage and preliminary digestion. Food remains in the stomach for 2 to 4 hours, but very little nutrient absorption takes place there. The digestive liquids in the stomach, are hydrochloric acid, pepsin, and rennin and they help break the food down into small components, as well as kill most harmful bacteria and parasites. A healthy stomach is like a guard dog against unwelcome parasitic invaders.
As food leaves the stomach it reaches the pyloric sphincter, a muscle valve that regulates the flow of chyme into the duodenum allowing in only small amounts of food at a time. There are 3 parts to the small intestine: The duodenum, jejunum and the ileum. The length of the small intestine is 7 meters (23 feet) in length.
Pancreatic liquids coming from the pancreas are protease for proteins, lipase for fats and amylase for starches. Bile is produced by the liver, stored in the gall bladder and dumped into the small intestine for the breakdown of fats.
The small intestine has hair-like tentacles (villi), which stick out of the intestinal wall and they are responsible for the movements and the absorption of the smaller food particles and nutrients.
For every square inch of intestinal wall, there are 3,500 villi. An improper diet can destroy these hair-like structures, which therefore destroys the potential for nutrient absorption, and this can have serious health consequences. Substances harmful to your intestinal villi include chemicals, additives, sugars, unhealthy oils, processed foods, drugs, excess alcohol and many other unnatural substances.
After digestion is complete in the small intestine, the digested food moves through the one-way Ileocecal valve at the beginning of the large intestine. The length of the large intestine is about 2 meters (5-7 feet) long and its main function is the formation and excretion of feces from the body.
Any undigested food that goes through the Ileocecal valve is broken down in the ascending and right side of the transverse colon and water is
reabsorbed. As the debris reaches the mid-way point of the transverse, it loses its fluid-like consistency and turns into a semi mush-like substance. The transverse colon runs across the abdomen, from right to left under the stomach and when you see someone with a spare tire, beer belly or “the roll,” it is mainly the transverse colon falling down and out, just like your energy and your health.
From the descending colon, the debris enters the sigmoid, which is approximately 40 cms (16 inches) long. From the sigmoid the debris enters the rectum, which is approximately 10 to 12 cms (4 to 5 inches) in length. The feces are made up of waste from the blood, mucus, epithelium tissue, bacteria and undigested residue of food.
The colon is an endocrine organ; it directly influences the activity of the pancreas and other digestive organs. The major absorption function of the colon is found to be the conservation of water.
So now that you have a glimpse of the complexity of the digestive tract you will hopefully want to make sure that it functions optimally, and the best way to ensure that is through a healthy diet. Many people have a congested and toxic digestive tract lined with a thick mucoprotein, which makes it incapable of properly breaking down foodstuffs.
In future articles we will discuss the important role the colon plays in our immune system, why it`s called our second brain and many other useful bits of information to help you maintain better health and longevity.
Dr. Ed Chicoine, Chiropractor
The information provided is for education purposes only. It`s not meant to diagnose or treat any health condition. If you have health problems, please consult with your doctor or other health professional before you make any major changes in your lifestyle.