A perfectly working digestive system is hard to come by. Most people experience tummy troubles at some point and this is completely normal considering it’s such an incredibly complex system. Before you can delve into the details of dealing with any kind of tummy trouble it may be helpful to understand how the digestive system works. It’s also just fascinating to know!
- DIGESTION STARTS IN THE MOUTH
Surprisingly, the first step of digestion begins when you start day-dreaming about your dinner or when you smell the scent of freshly baked donuts. It is termed the cephalic phase, where hunger and appetite together stimulate the release of digestive juices, preparing your gastrointestinal tract (GIT) for digestion. The next step is chewing which moistens the food and breaks it down into smaller pieces so that you can swallow it. This is also where saliva does its magic as it contains digestive juices. Did you know that without saliva you wouldn’t be able to taste your food? Taste occurs when chemicals dissolved in saliva bind to taste receptors in taste buds. Chewing is an important step in digestion because if we don’t chew properly or eat too quickly then bigger food particles move to the stomach giving digestive juices and the body more work to digest and break down the food1,2,3.
2. THE OESOPHAGUS
The next step of digestion is where the mass of food that has been chewed and moistened in the mouth, referred to as a bolus, is swallowed and transported to the stomach via the oesophagus. It does this by a process called peristalsis which is a wave of squeezing and pushing contractions of the oesophagus. Gravity also does its thing here, that’s why it’s smart to sit upright when eating. Another fun fact: a bit of food can be transported from the mouth to the stomach in 5 to 8 seconds. At the end of the oesophagus is a sphincter which relaxes once food reaches it and allows food to enter the stomach. Some people’s sphincter’s are continually relaxed leading to a condition known as Gastro-oesophageal Reflux Disorder (GERD) also known as chronic heart burn1,2.
3. THE STOMACH
Further digestion occurs in the stomach where gastric juices are secreted. The stomach is lined with mucous cells to facilitate and protect the stomach from acid damage whilst still allowing it to break down food – it’s genius! Mechanical digestion in the form of peristalsis still takes place here, mixing up the contents of the stomachand allowing gastric acid to do its trick1.
4. THE SMALL INTESTINE
This is where majority of both digestion and absorption takes place. Although only 2.5 centimetres in diameter, it is the longest portion of the GIT, at about 3.5 metres long. This is where food is broken down to its smallest components by digestive enzymes and organs such as the gallbladder and pancreas. Once digestion and absorption is complete, the remaining mass is passed into the large intestine1.
- THE LARGE INTESTINE
Also referred to as the colon, it houses all remaining undigested food such as fibre, water and bacteria. It may sound strange to have bacteria in your colon but it’s actually completely normal and in fact incredibly beneficial as they assist to digest remaining nutrients. FUTURELIFE® Bran Flakes and Barley with Probiotic Capsulescontains 10 capsules of HOWARU® Premium Probiotics which could assist in repopulating your colon with beneficial bacteria thus assisting in fighting off harmful bacteria. In this process of bacteria digesting nutrients in the colon, they produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which are also highly beneficial and used as an energy source for the cells lining the colon. This bacteria promotes overall digestive health. Other than this, no further digestion takes place and the colon simply stores the remaining mass for 12 to 24 hours whilst absorbing water, SCFAs and electrolytes until it is eliminated from the body1,2.
Here are 4 simple tips everyone can practise to help their digestive system work at its best!
- Relax before you eat. Think about your food and allow your tummy to prepare. If you’re stressed then your body isn’t as equipped to prepare digestive juices for food.
- Chew slowly! Your food should resemble something like applesauce before you swallow.
- Sit upright when eating to allow gravity to do its thing, preventing heart burn.
- Eat foods rich in probiotics to repopulate the colon with healthy bacteria and prebiotics to assist the growth of healthy bacteria.
If you’re a visual learner then you may find the below infographic easier to follow and help you to visualise how it works. As you can see, the route of digestion is: mouth → oesophagus → stomach → small intestine (pancreas and gallbladder) → large intestine.3
- JL Thompson, MM Manroe, LA Vaughan. The science of nutrition. 2008.
- L Mahan, S Escott-Stump. Krauses’s Food and nutrition therapy. 12th 2012 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: W.B Saunders Company, USA