Basics Of Digestive Health

About the digestive system

A group of organs is the digestive system that work together to convert the food you eat into the energy and nutrients needed by your body. After consuming food and fluids, the digestive system breaks them down into their basic building blocks: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and vitamins. Then these basic nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream, which carries them to cells throughout the body. Nutrients provide cells with the energy they need to grow and repair themselves. Everything in your body, from your hormones to your heart, needs nutrients from the digestive process to function properly.

How the digestive system works

When you eat, food travels from your mouth through your esophagus to your stomach. Then it travels through the small and large intestines, and eventually through the anus as waste. The gallbladder, liver, and pancreas are also included in the digestive system. These organs produce chemicals that help digestion.

All of these organs work in harmony to make sure the body is getting the nutrients it needs. Some organs are hollow, while others are solid. A series of muscle contractions move food through the digestive system from hollow organs to solid organs. This important process is called peristalsis.

The hollow organs of the digestive system are:

Mouth

Digestion begins in the mouth. This is where the action of chewing begins to break down the starches into carbohydrates. Special glands inside the mouth release saliva. Saliva and enzymes in saliva also help speed up the breakdown of starchy foods.

Esophagus

This organ pushes food from the mouth to the next part of the digestive system, the stomach.

Stomach

Once food falls into the esophagus, the muscles in the upper stomach relax to allow food to enter. Once the food has entered the stomach, the muscles at the bottom of the stomach begin to move. In the stomach, the movement combines food with the acidic digestive juices produced by the glands. Acid mainly breaks down foods containing protein.  Eventually, the stomach contents are emptied into the small intestine.

Small intestine

The muscles of the small intestine mix food with its own digestive juices, as well as those of the pancreas and liver. As the small intestine pushes food into the large intestine, these digestive juices help break down the food further into carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. The walls of the small intestine then absorb nutrients from digested food and pass them through the bloodstream. From there, the blood carries nutrients to cells throughout the body.

Large intestine

All food is not broken down by the digestive system. Waste, or undigested food and dead cells, is pushed into the large intestine. The large intestine absorbs water and nutrients left over from the waste before turning them into solid stools. Stool is stored at the end of the large intestine, called the rectum, until it is expelled from the body during a bowel movement.

In the digestive process, hollow organs play a vital role, while solid organs release various chemicals that allow the digestive process to actually work.

The strong organs of the digestive system are:

Pancreas

In the upper part of the abdomen, behind the stomach, the pancreas is located. It produces digestive juices which help the small intestine to break down food into carbohydrates, proteins and fats. It also makes chemicals that help regulate blood sugar levels, which affects the amount of energy available to the body.

Liver

A very large organ located above the stomach in the upper abdomen is the liver. Among its many important functions, the liver creates bile, a digestive substance that is stored in the gallbladder. During digestion, bile is sent to the small intestine to help break down foods containing fat. In addition to helping the digestive process, the liver also stores nutrients and helps flush toxins from the body.

Gall bladder

The gallbladder is a small pocket that stores bile made in the liver. During digestion, the gallbladder releases bile in the upper part of the small intestine to break down foods containing fat.

Problems with the digestive system

Sometimes one or more parts of the digestive system are not functioning properly. It can cause anything from minor discomfort to serious health issues. Some common digestive system problems include:

Acid reflux and GERD

Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid or bile travels back up into the esophagus, causing heartburn and other uncomfortable symptoms. Most people experience acid reflux from time to time, especially after eating spicy foods or large meals. However, when acid reflux occurs more than twice a week, the disease is considered gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). While some discomfort can be caused by acid reflux, GERD has the potential to cause serious health problems.

Symptoms of acid reflux and GERD include:

  • a burning sensation in the chest (heartburn) that sometimes goes up to the throat
  • a bitter taste in the mouth
  • difficulty swallowing
  • dry cough
  • sore throat
  • nausea
  • burping
  • regurgitation of food or acidic fluids
  • feel a lump in the throat

Gallstones

Gallstones are solidified lumps of digestive fluid that can form in the gallbladder. They can be small like a grain of sand or big as a golf ball. People can have one or more gallstones at the same time. Some people don’t need treatment for their gallstones, while others may require surgery to remove their gallbladder.

There are two main types of gallstones: bilirubin gallstones and cholesterol gallstones. Cholesterol gallstones are yellow and made up mostly of cholesterol. Bilirubin gallstones, on the other hand, are black or dark brown and contain bilirubin. Bilirubin is a chemical produced by the body when it breaks down red blood cells.

A small gallstone may not cause any symptoms. A larger gallstone, however, often causes symptoms. These symptoms can include:

  • pain in the upper right part of the abdomen that radiates to the right shoulder or shoulder blades
  • the whites of the eyes or yellowing of the skin (jaundice)
  • fever
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • clay stools

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

IBS is a symptoms collection that affect the large intestine, causing extreme abdominal discomfort and pain. It is a chronic disease that must be managed with long-term treatment. Most people with IBS can control their symptoms by changing their diet and changing their lifestyle. However, some people may experience severe symptoms and need medication and counseling.

Common symptoms of IBS include:

  • abdominal pain or cramps
  • bloating
  • gas
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • mucous membrane in stool

Hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids, also known as piles, are swollen veins around the anus or in the lower rectum at the end of the large intestine. Hemorrhoids can be internal or external. Inside the rectum, internal hemorrhoids are located while external hemorrhoids are located under the skin around the anus.

Some common symptoms of hemorrhoids include:

  • bleeding during bowel movements
  • itching or irritation around the anus
  • pain or discomfort around the anus
  • swelling around the anus
  • a lump near the anus
  • leaking stool

Although hemorrhoids can cause some discomfort, they can usually be treated with over-the-counter ointments, creams, or suppositories. More serious hemorrhoids that do not go away with simple home treatments may need to be treated with surgery.

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have symptoms of any of the digestive disorders described above. You should also contact your doctor immediately if you experience severe pain or bleeding, or bleeding accompanied by dizziness or lightheadedness.

Maintain digestive health

Keeping your digestive system healthy can help you avoid digestive issues. Follow these simple tips to keep your digestive system in top shape:

  • Each day, eat at least seven servings of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables contain enzymes, fiber, minerals, vitamins, and prebiotics that keep your digestive system healthy.
  • Eat whole grain breads, pastas and cereals. Whole grains contain more fiber and nutrients than “fortified” white grain products and help your good colon bacteria thrive.
  • Avoid processed meats, such as hot dogs and sausages, as they can cause problems with the digestive system. You should also limit your intake of beef, pork, and lamb. These meats are the most likely to carry bacteria that can harm the digestive system.
  • Get enough calcium and vitamin D. You can prevent digestive problems by making sure you get the right amount of foods and drinks rich in calcium, such as milk, tofu, and yogurt. Taking vitamin D supplements and safely increasing your sun exposure can also help prevent digestive problems.
  • Regular exercise. A healthy digestive system can be maintained by staying physically active. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity at least three days a week.

People who are overweight or underweight may be prone to greater digestive problems. Your risk can be lowered by exercising and eating a healthy diet. If you’re having trouble losing or gaining weight, talk to your doctor about what you can do.