Believe it or not, your gut is one of the most important group of organs in the body. In addition to being responsible for digestion, absorption and utilisation of nutrients, it’s also our first line of defence. The gastrointestinal system is very exposed to the external environment – what goes into our mouths can be helpful or harmful. Contaminated food and drink, toxins, infections – our gut needs to cope with those things too. In fact, the gut represents 70% of our immune system. That’s why the health of our gut is so important.
Poor gut health can express a wide range of effects on the body. While some of us experience these symptoms from time to time, others may suffer from them constantly – compromising the health of the gut and potentially leading to deficiencies and impacting our vitality and optimal health.
That’s why it’s good to understand how our digestive system works, and how tuning in to our gut feelings and gut reactions can be so important to the health of the whole body.
In 400 BC, Hippocrates said, “Death sits in the bowels” and “bad digestion is the root of all evil.”
The Digestive System
1. The mouth and teeth break food down into tiny pieces and mixes these with saliva, which starts the digestive process.
2. The oesophagus is the channel between the mouth and the stomach. Swallowing initiates powerful muscular contractions that push food down into the stomach.
3. The stomach secretes acid and peptic enzymes which further dilute and break up the food, digesting proteins, killing off the majority bacteria. It usually takes about 1-5 hours for most of a moderate sized mixed meal to be emptied from the stomach and into the small intestine.
4. The pancreas is a digestive gland that secretes an alkaline juice, containing powerful enzymes that break down protein, fat and carbohydrates. It is also the source of the hormone insulin.
5. The liver receives blood from the gut, filters it, removes toxins, metabolises drugs, stores nutrients and synthesises bile.
6. The gall bladder stores and concentrates bile, and after a meal squeezes it into the small intestine, where it helps to digest fat.
7. The small intestine is a narrow tube and is about 6 metres long. Here the major food groups, protein fat and carbohydrate are broken down into amino acids, sugars and fatty acids, which are then absorbed into the blood stream. It can take between 2-4 hours for a meal to be processed in the small intestine.
8. The colon or large intestine salvages unabsorbed material from the small intestine. It extracts salt and water from the solidifying contents, while the trillions of colonic bacteria ferment unabsorbed sugars, starches and proteins to short chain fatty acids, which may be utilised as a source of energy.
What can affect the gut?
The gut is a very sophisticated and interconnected system – it even communicates with our brain. Consequently, many factors can affect its performance. Stress, what we eat, illness, exercise, medications, even getting older can have an impact on our gut and lead to appetite issues, abdominal pain, bloating, nausea and vomiting, indigestion/reflux, constipation, diarrhoea and flatulence (wind).