The digestive system is simple in design and concept. It starts off as a single tube from mouth to anus in the foetus. As the system matures [in the foetus] our digestive organs (stomach, liver, spleen and pancreas) sprout from the tube with the remaining tube forming the small and large intestines. When we eat, our chewed food passes through the tube and different components are absorbed through the walls into the waiting blood vessels. Our digestive organs produce specialist chemicals that empty into the intestines at key points and facilitate the breakdown of the chewed food. Whatever remains at the end of the process is expelled and the whole process takes between 8-24hrs.
The digestive system is tightly packed into the abdominal cavity however the individual organs (in particular the small & large intestines) are still able to slide over one another. Think of spaghetti with a generous coating of olive oil compared to non-oiled spaghetti. When this sliding motion is impaired the movement through the intestines is also impaired leading to abdominal cramps, collick pain and problems passing stools. This is very evident in those who have inflammatory bowel disease such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Our general movement (I.e. bending ,twisting, rotating), breathing and regular intake of food ensures these sliding characteristics are maintained. Sitting however is not conducive as the volume within the abdominal cavity is decreased.
As we touched on earlier, the chewed food is absorbed by cells that are situated on the intestinal walls. These walls need to be clean for the cells to absorb effectively. Unfortunately, some food types can stick to the sides creating scum in a similar manner that limescale sticks to the side of our water pipes. This means that although we are eating correctly we will not get the maximum benefit, i.e. we are absorbing less nutrients per kg of food. Fear not, as nature has created its own tube cleaners for us in the name of roughage. Many food groups can be considered roughage but are broadly found in a wide range of vegetables, fruits, grains and pulses. These have compounds which passes through the tube with no intention of being absorbed. Rather they bang against the walls on their way down eroding the scum. This is one of the reasons why the recommended vegetables per day has increased from 5 to 7.
Our digestive system has its own communication system. This means that when food enters the mouth, the organs further down the line are already preparing for the arrival of the chewed food. This is logical because the food flows through the intestines quickly. Therefore if the organs start producing the chemicals when the food arrives by the time the chemicals are released the food would have already gone. We can sometimes trick this system into coming alive when there is no need. The most common example is chewing gum or sweets. These give the impression food is arriving when in reality nothing is. The organs have wasted energy producing these chemicals and these chemicals then sit in your intestines with potentially negative consequences. The same is true (but to a less degree) for snack-like foods such as crisps, nuts, crackers, etc. Interestingly, eaten after a meal they may prolong the release of chemicals thus improving digestion.
We hope this article has helped you understand your digestive system better and given you insights into how to care for it. Have a lovely month.