Digestion

 diagram of the digestive tract and the organs of digestion

Digestion

What is the digestive system?

Digestive system definition

The digestive system begins at your mouth and ends at the opening of your rectum or anus.  It is a tube and digestive organs that are meant to process food and fluid that you ingest.

Digestive system function

The digestive system breaks down food into its component parts so that they can be absorbed into your body and used as building blocks for cell growth or repair or fuel for bodily functions.

What are the digestive system organs?

Mouth

Your mouth is the first component of the digestive system.  There your teeth mechanically break down food through chewing or mastication.  At the same time, saliva is mixed with the food to help liquify it.  Saliva contains an enzyme called amylase which helps to break down starch.  So the process of digestion really begins in your mouth.  This is why it is best for good digestion, to thoroughly chew your food and eat slowly.

Esophagus

The tube that connects your mouth to your stomach is called the esophagus.  It transports liquids and solids to your stomach through a process known as peristalsis.  Peristalsis is rhythmic contractions of the muscles that line the digestive tract and move food and waste through the digestive system.

Stomach

Your stomach further liquifies what you have eaten and mixes it with stomach acid.  Stomach acid serves several functions: 1) it sterilizes what you have eaten, 2) it ionizes minerals for absorption further down, 3) it allows you to absorb vitamin B12, 4) it initiates the process of protein digestion and 5) when the acid-food mixture leaves your stomach, the acidity triggers release of bile from the gallbladder and pancreatic juice from the pancreas.

Gallbladder

The gallbladder is a storage pouch that is attached to the liver.  It is meant to store a fluid produced by the liver called bile.  Bile is a digestive juice that helps to break down fat, allowing for fat absorption and absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.  Bile also acts to carry waste out of the body through the stool. The gallbladder empties bile into the small intestine where it helps with fat digestion.

Pancreas

The pancreas is a long, flat gland that lays beside and below your stomach.  It serves several purposes, including producing digestive enzymes to break down protein (protease), fat (lipase) and starch (amylase).  The other important job of your pancreas is to control blood sugar levels through production of insulin and glucagon. The pancreas secretes digestive enzymes into the small intestine through the pancreatic duct.

Small Intestine (Duodenum, Jejunum, Ileum)

The small intestine is the tube that connects your stomach to your large intestine.  It is about 6 metres or 22 feet long.  The purpose of the small intestine is to continue the breakdown of your food and to absorb nutrients out of it.  There are tiny finger-like projections on the surface of the small intestine that are called microvilli.  These are meant to increase the surface area that is available for absorption.  Conditions like gluten allergy or Celiac disease can damage these so that absorption is impaired.

Large Intestine (Colon)

The large intestine or colon is the portion of your digestive tract from your small intestine to your anus.  This is where your body absorbs water and minerals.  The stool is stored here until you are ready to pass it in the form of a bowel movement.

Why is good digestion important?

Good digestion is important because the nutrients your body receives is dependant on good digestion.  Not only is it important to consume high-quality food, you have to be able to break it down and absorb it for it to fuel optimal body function.

What are signs of good digestion?

Signs and symptoms of good digestion include:

  • Regular bowel movements, at least once per day every day
  • Bowel movements that are easy to pass, you don’t have to strain or spend a great deal of time trying to have a bowel movement
  • Your stool is well formed, about 1-1.5 inches in diameter
  • Stool is free of undigested food, blood or mucous
  • Stool is med to dark brown, not greyish or very dark
  • Gas production is minimal
  • Once you have swallowed your food you are generally unaware that there is much going on in there until it passes out the other end as stool, that is, you don’t feel bloated, gassy, nauseous, heartburn, indigestion, burning or pain

What are signs or symptoms of bad digestion?

  • Bowels move less frequently than once per day
  • Bowel movements are difficult to pass
  • Your stool is loose, watery, mucousy
  • Stool contains undigested food
  • Stool contains blood or mucus
  • Your stool is clay coloured, or very dark
  • You feel bloated, gassy, nauseous, experience heartburn, vomiting, indigestion, burning or abdominal pain
  • Feeling full after eating very little
  • Low appetite

Digestive System Diseases

Diseases of the digestive tract include Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, IBS, hemorrhoids, GERD, diverticulitis, gallstones, pancreatitis, fissures, fistula and colon cancer.

How to improve digestion naturally

Improving digestion naturally involves addressing why the digestive tract is not working normally.  Food allergies or sensitivities are often a significant source of digestive system malfunction.  Testing and removing these always helps.  Otherwise, you can support healthy digestion with digestive aids like digestive enzymes, herbs like dandelion and artichoke to improve bile flow, diluted apple cider vinegar or betaine hydrochloride to supplement stomach acid and probiotics to address healthy bacteria in the gut.  Our naturopathic doctors are the experts in restoring healthy digestion and can guide you as to which supplements would be best for you.

Foods that improve digestion

Foods that may help improve digestion include apple cider vinegar, fermented foods like kim chi, miso, tempeh, raw sauerkraut, kefir and yogourt.  If you boil cabbage, the cooking water is rich in an amino acid known as l-glutamine.  L-glutamine helps heal and soothe the digestive tract.  Fiber-rich foods are also beneficial to the digestive system.  Healthy bacteria in your gut break down fibre to create a fuel for cells that line your digestive tract. Fibre also prevents gut bacteria from digesting the wall of your colon.  Fibre deprivation causes the gut bacteria to turn to the mucous layer that protects your colon for food.

How to digest food faster after eating too much at a big meal

With the holidays upon us and the wide array of delectable food choices before us, it’s easy to overeat.  Is there a way to relieve the discomfort of overeating and help digest that big meal faster?  Prevention is always the best solution, so aim to be more conscious of how much you have eaten, eat more slowly so that your brain has time to register when you are full and of course, stop when you are full.  If you have already overeaten, here are a few tips that may help:

  • A tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a little water may help increase your stomach acid to allow the food to digest and move out of your stomach more quickly.
  • Avoid drinking for a couple of hours.  Fluids will dilute your stomach acid and slow digestion down.
  • Take a long walk.  Gentle movement can help things move along by massaging your intestines and with a little assist from gravity.  A relaxing walk can also help turn on your parasympathetic nervous system which helps with digestion.
  • Take digestive enzymes.  These may irritate if your stomach is inflamed, so it’s best to get advice first.  Certain digestive enzymes also contain an extract from pineapple called bromelain.  In those who are sensitive to pineapple, they can cause an adverse reaction.   So these are definitely NOT recommended for everyone.

Foods that are hard to digest

Foods that require more of your digestive tract’s resources may be hard to digest.  Consuming these in smaller quantities may be fine and is preferred rather than restricting them from your diet altogether. Here’s why you may find these foods difficult to digest:

  1. Protein-rich foods like steak and eggs.  These foods require lots of stomach acid to begin the process of protein digestion.  If you don’t have enough acid your stomach, they can sit in your stomach for a long time, feeling heavy or some say “like a rock” sitting in their stomach. Our naturopathic doctors can help with maintaining healthy stomach acid.
  2. Fatty foods.  Many of my patients report having to rush to the bathroom if they eat anything too greasy.  Fatty foods require bile from your liver and gallbladder and lipase from your pancreas to digest.  If you are incapable of digesting it well, the body may reject it in the form of diarrhea.
  3. Nuts and seeds.  These foods can be hard for your gut to break down.  Seeds, in particular, are meant to pass through your gut intact.  You would then poop them out on the ground, assuming you were living in the wild.  This is the plant’s way of having you plant the seeds for it.
  4. Beans and legumes.  There is an enzyme called alpha-galactosidase that you need to produce to digest beans and legumes.   If you don’t produce enough, consuming these can cause you to feel bloated and gassy.  There are supplements that can be used to replace alpha-galactosidase to make digesting legumes easier.

Digestion involves multiple processes in order to be optimal.  Our naturopathic doctors are experts in fixing digestive system disorders.  For more information read these: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Gut or Digestion Problems?, Naturopathic Doctors and Naturopathic Medicine

picture of the word digestion

Digestion References:

  1. Mahesh S. Desai et al. A Dietary Fiber-Deprived Gut Microbiota Degrades the Colonic Mucus Barrier and Enhances Pathogen SusceptibilityCell, November 2016 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2016.10.043