We will not survive for very long if we did not have this system, though. Without it, food cannot be broken down into the nutrients which the body uses for its energy, growth and cell repairs. Without our guts, the food molecules would be simply too big to be absorbed through the walls of the arteries surrounding the gastro-intestinal (GIT) system, and would not be carried to each living cell where they are required. In addition a healthy diet helps the body and the gut by up-regulating, modifying and improving the GIT biome. (A biome is any large community of plants and animals that occupies a distinct region. In this case the region is the GIT and the plants and animals are the more than a hundred trillion bacteria living there).
I thought it a good idea to review what the digestive system is, how it works and what we can do to keep it as healthy as we can.
The digestive system starts at our mouth, followed by the pharynx, then the esophagus, the stomach, the small intestine and large intestine. In addition, the liver, gallbladder and pancreas help with digestion by pouring their secretions into the digestive tract. In total the human digestive tract from beginning to end is about 9 metres or thirty foot long; as it takes about that distance to make sure that all the food we eat is broken down and processed. On average it takes about six to eight hours for food to pass through the small intestine and then about forty hours to get through the large intestine.
Here’s how digestion works:
When we walk through the foyer at Sparkling Hill, we may smell the delectable aroma of roast beef coming from the direction of Peakfine. Even before we jog up the stairs to book a table for dinner, our salivary glands already spring into action, making our mouth water. As soon as we bite down on that first piece of bison beef, the saliva in our mouth really starts going to help the food getting broken down and lubricated. (Altogether we produce about a litre of saliva a day). Our teeth help the breakdown process along, until the food is transformed into a rounded, soft, moist mass, called a bolus. A bolus is the best shape and consistency for swallowing.
Once we swallow that bolus of what used to be a morsel of beef, muscles in our mouth and throat push the bolus towards our esophagus. Once there, muscles in front of the bolus relax, and muscles just behind it contract. Through this process, called peristalsis, it gets pushed all the way down through the lower esophageal sphincter into the stomach.
The muscles of the stomach then rolls the bolus around much the same way as our clothes gets rolled around in a washing machine. The stomach’s acids and enzymes mix up with the food until they all become a cloudy paste, called chyme. Once the stomach judges the process to be complete, it propels about two grams of the chyme through a valve, called the pylorus, into the small intestine. The rest of the chyme is kept back to send through at a next time.
We are now in the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine. Here the pancreas, liver and gall bladder jump in to aid through their secretions. The pancreas helps with breakdown of the proteins, fats and carbohydrates, whilst the liver helps with the breakdown of fats and the gall bladder produces bile that helps break down fats and fat-soluble vitamins, at the same time helping with the secretion of waste products, such as bilirubin, into the digestive tract.
The process of digestion continues through the second part, the jejunum, as well as through the ileum, the third and longest part of the small intestine. By the time our food arrives here, little more than water, electrolytes such as sodium and potassium, the fibre leftovers of our bison beef dinner, as well as dead cells shed by the lining of our digestive system remain.
As this continues through the larger intestine, almost all of the remaining water is absorbed and a soft but formed substance, called the stool, is expelled through contractions of the rectal muscle via the anus.
How can we help our digestive system to continue to do its unpretentious, but vital work for as long as possible?
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Drink at least 250ml (one cup) of water before any of your meals.
- Eat small meals often
- Limit cold foods and cold drinks
- Chew your food thoroughly
- Eat both raw and cooked food daily
- Eat fermented food (good choices are kefer, Kim Chi, sauerkraut or tempeh), or if that grosses you out, add probiotics to your food
- Use ginger, cinnamon and turmeric daily
- Exercise (but don’t train hard after a large meal)