Digestive System 101

The gastrointestinal system, also referred to as the gastrointestinal tract, digestive system, digestive tract, or gut, is a group of organs that includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, colon, and rectum. The gut serves many essential roles in sustaining and protecting the overall health and wellness of our bodies, starting with the intake and absorption of nutrients and water.  According to Dr. Vermitt Singh, Gastroenterologist at UCD, “It is this digestive process that provides the building blocks the body needs to live, to function, and to stay healthy.”

An initial key step for improving digestion begins in the mouth.  The digestive process begins with the process of chewing.  The teeth and tongue help us to chew our food and begin breaking down food with enzymes in the saliva.  The second step is the esophagus, or food pipe, which uses its muscles to move the food from the mouth to the stomach through a coordinated process called peristalsis. The esophagus then releases the food into the stomach and a valve, or sphincter, acts as a gateway to keep the food from going back up into the esophagus.  Breakdown in this process can lead to the common issue of heartburn, also know as acid reflux.

The role of the stomach is to sterilized and further break down food particles. The stomach produces hydrochloric acid (HCl), which helps to sterilize the food, so that it doesn’t give us an infection or make us sick. This is one reason we believe that we need to have plenty of HCl in your system.  Inhibitors can cause negative, long- term health consequences since they work by actively neutralizing HCl.

Once processed in the stomach, food moves into the small intestine, which is primarily involved in the absorption of nutrients. These nutrients act as building blocks that are essential to keep the body alive and operating healthily. While called the small intestine, this organ plays a huge role in digestion and measures approximately 21 feet, with an inner lining covered in small, hair-like projections called villi. These minuscule structures increase the surface area of the organ to vastly increase absorption of nutrients.

The gut and brain work together in the digestive process as well as playing key roles in our stress level, mood, and state of mind.

Along the way, the pancreas, liver, gallbladder, and bile duct also play important roles in our digestive process. The pancreas secretes digestive enzymes into the small intestine to help break down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, while also producing the hormones insulin and glucagon to help regulate our blood sugar. The liver, which is the largest solid organ in the body, is the body’s primary site of protein building. The liver produces bile, which is secreted into the gallbladder, assisting the small intestine to help break down dietary fats. In turn, the small intestine sends carbohydrates, fats, and other nutrients to the liver, where they are converted into protein and glucose, to be used as fuel for the body. The remaining digestive material is passed into the large colon. The colon’s main job is absorption of water and electrolytes as nourishment and passing any remaining solid waste out of the body.

Aside from the physical break down of food into nutrients, the gut serves as a communication center for the brain. There are more nerve endings surrounding the digestive tract than anywhere else in your body, including your spinal column. The gut and brain work together in the digestive process as well as playing key roles in our stress level, mood, and state of mind. A bi-directional system, the gut and brain inform the other of stressors to the body. The gut is filled with nerve cells from the Vagus nerve, which is directly responsible for control of heart rate, gut motility, sweating, and emotional stress. The gut also produces more than 90% of the body’s serotonin, a hormone that helps regulate our mood or emotions.  It’s no surprise, therefore, that the gut is also referred to as the “second brain.”

Now that you know the WHAT, join us next week to learn the HOW to improve your digestive health!