The human digestive system has one main function; to break down the foods that we eat. It does this mechanically (eg: using our teeth to chew) and chemically (using enzymes) so that we can use the foods we eat to fuel our bodies. The process of digestion is a basic, natural human function; it’s what our bodies are designed to do and yet in modern society, hundreds of thousands of people suffer from digestive disorders.

The digestive process begins with our mouths. Food is ingested, chewed (broken down mechanically – that is if we chew properly!) and broken down chemically by enzymes such as amylase and salivary lipase. It then passes to our stomach where digestive enzymes (such as pepsin, gelatinase and gastric amylase and lipase) chemically breakdown our food further. The remains of the food then pass into our small intestines where the majority of the digestive process and absorption takes place. Most of the chemical breakdown of food that happens in our bodies, happens here in the small intestine using digestive enzymes secreted by the Pancreas via the Pancreatic duct. Proteins, lipids (fats) and carbohydrates are broken down and anything our body feels that it ‘needs’ is then absorbed into our blood vessels through the process of diffusion.

The modern diet unfortunately puts a huge strain on the human digestive system. Digestive disorders have become so common in modern society that constipation, bloatedness, diarrhea, food poisoning, headaches and stomach cramps have all become part of a normal day. Doesn’t that sound so wrong to you? When you see those words written down? What is normal about constipation or headaches or uncomfortable stomach cramps??

So, what are the causes of digestive problems:

Stress

Stressors of all kinds are primary causes of poor digestion. When humans experience stress the body automatically diverts energy, blood, enzymes and oxygen to other areas of the body as a survival mechanism.; thus leaving some areas of the body deprived and under pressure which inevitably effects digestion.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics kill a high percentage of naturally occurring beneficial bacteria that we need for digestion and this puts our digestive systems under huge pressure if these good bacteria are not replaced.

Poor Diet

The modern diet mainly consists of refined carbohydrates: Sweeteners (sugar, syrup), beverages (juices, sodas and alcohol), white flour and processed grains (bagels, bread, chips, cereals, buns), candy, snacks, etc. A steady diet of these refined carbs forces the body to rob itself of essential minerals such as magnesium, copper, zinc, cobalt, chromium, etc. Once these minerals are depleted the body finds it harder to digest ANYTHING! So, our bodies stop digesting and yet we eat more of the same. This leads to carbohydrates fermenting into simple sugars and alcohols because they’re left lying around in the gut. This newly fermented sugar and alcohol then provides fuel for yeast and bacteria to grow which leads to common indigestion, gas and bloating.

A lack of fiber also results in slow transit time of food through the digestive tract (ie: constipation). Think about it, if you’re not passing stool at least once per day what is happening? You’re just building up and building up rotten, fermenting foods in the gut.

Drugs & Alcohol

All drugs are toxic to the digestive system; destroying enzymes and the stomach and intestinal lining.

Eating Habits

Eating too fast, not chewing our foods, eating under stress, poor food combining, etc. As a modern society, we have the most dreadful eating habits.

Poor Diet = What Happens in our bodies…

When we suffer from digestive problems (ie: bloating, constipation, cramping, IBS, chron’s disease, diarrheoa, etc) what exactly is happening inside of us?

Low Production of HCI (Hydrochloric Acid)

HCI is a powerful digestive acid produced in the stomach and is ESSENTIAL for the digestion of proteins. HCI also acts as the body’s first lines of defense; destroying parasites, mould, harmful bacteria and viruses. HCI activates pepsin which encourages the flow of bile and pancreatic enzymes and facilitates the absorption of nutrients. Therefore, adequate production of HCI is absolutely critical to the good health and functioning of the digestive system. But, we abuse our bodies through the consumption of modern, processed, sugary, salty, refined foods and through our modern lifestyles (stress, not enough sleep, etc). This constant abuse decreases the body’s ability to produce HCI which leads to incomplete digestion, poor absorption and vulnerability to infection.

Lowered Enzyme Production

There are two types of enzymes used in the body: metabolic and digestive. The main digestive enzymes are produced in the pancreas and are Protease, Lipase and Amylase. Pancreatic function is diminished due to what we eat and how we live and there begins a deficiency in enzyme production. Not enough enzymes = poor digestion = not enough nutrients extracted from our foods = nutrient deficiencies.

Imbalanced Intestinal pH

The level of acidity and alkalinity is an essential element in digestion. In a healthy digestive tract, there is a shift in pH levels as food goes through the system. The pancreas regulates this change by producing both HCI and buffers so that the mouth, stomach, small intestines and colon do not become too acidic or too alkaline. If levels are not right, food cannot be broken down properly and nutrients cannot be absorbed.

Therefore, poor diet = poor pancreatic function = insufficiencies in HCI and buffers = incomplete digestion and absorption of essential nutrients.

So, a very brief overview but I think brief overviews are sometimes easier to read than the lengthy, medical termed articles (or so I have found anyway!). When I began researching what exactly ‘happens’ inside our bodies during the process of digestion and why we sometimes will feel the effects of indigestion when we eat the wrong foods I was exhausted from reading so many lengthy articles so I hope that some of you will find my shorter, more condensed explanation somewhat helpful.

Remember: Be smart, eat smart!

Further reading:

http://medicalcenter.osu.edu/patientcare/healthcare_services/digestive_disorders/digestive_system/Pages/index.aspx

http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/default.htm

Megan O'Neill

Megan O'Neill is a musician, psychologist, nutrition advisor and an absolute health-nut! She currently resides in London, but - as you may have guessed from the name - is originally from Ireland. Six years ago, following an incredible trip to Asia, she suddenly became very ill with IBS, food intolerances and chronic fatigue. No-one could have predicted how that fateful trip would... Read More

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