Understanding your Digestive System

Understanding YOUR Digestive System


How well do you really know your digestive system? Most of us only have a vague idea of how it all works, and even fewer understand the important role it plays in our overall health. In this post, we'll take a closer look at your digestive system and discuss some key points everyone should know about it. So sit back and get ready to learn all about your gut!

The Digestive System

Your digestive system is a series of organs that break down food into small, absorbable components – so your body can use them to build and nourish cells. After digestion, the waste leftover from this process is eliminated as feces.

Food is broken down by a number of digestion techniques. The first one is called mechanical digestion, which is the process of physically breaking down food into smaller pieces using teeth and tongue. Chemical digestion then takes over as enzymes in the saliva break apart big molecules into smaller ones. The majority of the chemical digestion, however, takes place in your intestines. While some bits and pieces are absorbed through intestinal walls directly into blood vessels – most particles take a detour through your liver before they can be used by other parts of your body.

The different parts of the digestive system

The gastrointestinal (GI) tract includes the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine (or colon), rectum and anus. All parts of this system work together to efficiently break down food so your body can absorb vital nutrients from it. In addition, they also extract fluids from solid wastes helping you eliminate them properly.

The mouth

The digestive system actually starts with your mouth - when you chew food into smaller pieces that are easier for your teeth to tear apart and swallow. This allows better contact with special chemicals in saliva that begin breaking down carbohydrates in foods like grains and vegetables into simple sugars. Once these carbs have been softened up enough by the saliva enzymes, a muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter that relaxes to allow food to pass into your stomach. But before that, the food has to enter the esophagus first.

The Esophagus

This long tubelike organ carries food from the back of your throat to the start of the small intestine. At the lower part of the esophagus is a circular band of muscle called a sphincter. This tightens to prevent food from moving the wrong way. For some people, this sphincter does not close tightly enough and can allow acidic stomach contents to reflux (aka back up) into the esophagus, causing heartburn.

The Stomach

Once food has been swallowed, it travels through the esophagus and enters your stomach, where chemical digestion continues breaking down proteins and carbohydrates into their smaller units. These units are then chemically modified by hydrochloric acid in your stomach and broken down even further by enzymes from glands in your stomach lining. In other words, it's a very acidic environment. The pyloric sphincter is a muscle valve at the bottom of your stomach that keeps food inside while it's being churned and periodically sent up to your esophagus for temporary storage before you swallow it again.

Located just below your diaphragm – right in between your lungs – is where most chemical digestion actually takes place. There are acids in the stomach that break down proteins and kill off any harmful bacteria or microorganisms. The resulting slush is called chyme, which slowly passes through a muscular valve connecting the stomach to the small intestine. Only very tiny bits of food can get through this valve at a time so that the small intestine has plenty of time to absorb nutrients.

The Small Intestine

Food enters the small intestine at a breakneck speed; travelling through it can take up to 7 hours! In this time, nutrients from foods are extracted for use by other parts of your body. The majority of these substances pass through simple diffusion, which is absorbed back into your blood at the capillaries of your intestinal walls. What is left of your food then leaves your small intestine as waste through the large intestine.

Now that food has finally reached the small intestine, valuable nutrients are extracted by blood vessels and passed on to other parts of your body. What's left of the waste then moves into your colon, where it is stored until you're ready to eliminate it as a stool. Three feet long in adults, this organ is located in the lower abdomen and is shaped like a long, hollow balloon. It's made of four parts: ascending colon, descending colon, sigmoid colon, rectum.

The small intestine is where most nutrients from consumed food are taken up by the body – this part is responsible for nutrient absorption that occurs after processing from stomach acids and digestive enzymes from the pancreas. Any remaining undigested material passes on to the large intestine, where it's exposed to bacteria that further break it down and produce gasses like methane and hydrogen.

The Liver

Most people say that the liver is not technically part of the digestive system. But since it's the main organ that breaks down food for use by your body, we believe it deserves a mention.

The liver has many functions, including helping to convert sugars into glycogen – which is stored until your body needs them. It also metabolizes proteins and lipids (fats), produces bile to help break down fats in the small intestine, converts ammonia into urea for disposal through urine, removes excess nitrogen from the bloodstream, disposes of old red blood cells and makes sure your blood is free of disease.

The liver is a chemical powerhouse that plays an important role in digestion - it processes toxins, hormones, cholesterol and proteins from the foods you eat. If it weren't for this organ, your digestive system would fail to function properly since all these substances are necessary for your body to get the most out of your food.

The Colon (Large Intestine)

The large intestine consists of the following: cecum, colon, rectum, and anal canal. A few inches of your large intestine are located in your lower right abdomen. The rest of it is in the pelvic area, attached to the back wall of your abdominal cavity.

A distinctive feature of the large intestine is its ability to absorb water from waste material without releasing any into the body. This allows you to go to the bathroom without losing any of your body's precious water supply. The large intestine (colon) is also home to trillions of bacteria that contribute to healthy digestion and help maintain immunity against illness.

This organ's main task is to absorb water and salts from feces leaving only dry stools behind when it reaches the rectum. By now, though, most nutrients have already been absorbed by the body – keeping what is leftover with solid waste until it can be eliminated. An average adult bowel movement takes up to 2 days, but it can take much longer if there is a lot of undigested food in the large intestine.

What does your stomach do?

As we've seen, there are a number of different parts involved in the digestive system – each important for breaking down proteins, carbohydrates and fats in foods you eat so they can be used by your body. But how do they know when to start and stop processing them? This is all thanks to the stomach, which sends messages to these organs, letting them know when it's ready for more food, so your body can get the most out of it before eliminating what you don't need.

The process starts with acids in the stomach that begin breaking down food in preparation for the release of enzymes from your pancreas. If you happen to eat too much at once, or if there is a delay before the next time you eat, your stomach will hold your partially digested meal until it can finish processing it. But when is this organ ready for more?

The digestive system follows three steps or phases that all work together in order to amount for efficient digestion:

The cephalic phase

This occurs before eating and involves smell and taste sensations that stimulate saliva production, enzyme secretion and muscle contractions. This prepares the body by getting the digestive juices flowing, so food is easier to break down later on. It also helps get your gastrointestinal tract moving after periods of rest.

The gastric phase

This starts as soon as you put the first bite of your meal into your mouth. At this point, enzymes from your salivary glands and pancreas enter the digestive tract to break down food for easier absorption later on. If there is a delay before eating again, the stomach will continue to store partially digested foods until it's ready for more.

The intestinal phase

Also known as chyme digestion, the intestinal phase takes place in the small intestine after anything from drinks or ptyalin has been added from the stomach. Bile from the gallbladder is important here, too, since it's needed to help break down fats and absorb certain vitamins and minerals that can't be taken in by the body through food alone.

The digestive system does all the hard work for us - it breaks down food, soaks up nutrients and helps eliminate waste. But did you know that there are three phases to the process? It's fascinating to think about how much our bodies do without even thinking about it! Be sure to thank your gut next time you have a meal!

What can go wrong with the digestive system

Like any other system in our body, the digestive system can also be subject to diseases and disorders. This can happen for a number of reasons, including insufficient or unbalanced nutrition, certain medications or genetic conditions.

Some digestive problems are the result of infections caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites – this is known as gastroenteritis. There are also illnesses that affect the stomach and intestines directly – like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), ulcers, diverticulitis ... The list goes on!

Ten common digestive system problems

Understanding what's going on in your body when you're suffering from these conditions can be difficult if you have no idea of any of the basics about it. So let's take a look at some common digestive system related problems and how they work:

1. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

If you're suffering from stomach cramps, diarrhea, constipation or both, chances are your symptoms may be caused by IBS. This problem often happens as a result of inflammation in the intestines – no prizes for guessing what organ is responsible for this!

In order to ease the pain and discomfort associated with this condition, though, it's important to know how it works too. Fortunately, there are a number of factors that can contribute to making your symptoms worse – stress being one of them. While there isn't always a clear answer on how stress affects IBS sufferers specifically, we do know that certain activities like eating bland foods can bring relief during an episode – which goes to show just how serious these kinds of problems can become if they're left ignored.

2. Acid Reflux Disease (ARD)

Unsurprisingly, ARD is another condition that affects the digestive system – but this time, it's mainly due to excessive stomach acid production. The reason why this happens isn't always clear, though, which makes treatment even more complicated. At its worst, acid reflux can cause inflammation of the esophagus and cause other health problems like breathing difficulties or tooth erosion ... So what does all this mean? Well, if you've been experiencing heartburn for no apparent reason, there are a number of things you can do at home to help reduce your symptoms, like avoiding caffeine or alcohol, sleeping upright after dinner and staying away from big meals altogether. This will give your body the chance to recover and prevent things from getting worse.

3. Peptic Ulcers

You've probably heard of this one before – but just in case you haven't, let's take a closer look. A peptic ulcer is an open ulcer or sore that forms on the lining of either your stomach or small intestine – which means only careful medical treatment will be able to help speed up the healing process. While we all know what causes ulcers (stress!), it can sometimes be difficult to diagnose them since their symptoms are often similar to those caused by other conditions like gastritis ... So what does this all mean? We always advise you to visit your doctor for an accurate diagnosis if you notice any changes to your energy levels or eating habits, even if you're sure it's not a peptic ulcer after all.

4. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

This is one of the most serious digestive problems out there, which is why early diagnosis and treatment are so important when you have it. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease are both forms of IBD – but what does this mean in practice? In both cases, your immune system attacks healthy cells in your intestines without any apparent reason – which means being able to identify the cause as quickly as possible will be crucial if you want to avoid complications like malnutrition or weight loss. As for treatment, medications that suppress your immune system can be helpful – but they tend to lose their effect after a while. Fortunately, there are other treatments that tend to be more effective – like taking supplements and probiotics.

5. Bowel Cancer

Few people know a lot about bowel cancer – and that's a shame since it tends to affect those who are over 50, which means the chance of you spotting the symptoms early on is pretty slim. In fact, most cases can present without any bleeding at all! So what does this mean? If you're older than 50 or have been experiencing stomach pain, bloating, or diarrhea for no reason – going to see your doctor as soon as possible will help protect you from this condition getting worse...

6. Food Poisoning

This is really scary – but the good news is that most cases of food poisoning will only last a few days at most. That being said, it's still important to pay attention to what you're eating since even mild cases can lead to dehydration and changes in blood pressure if left untreated ... So what does this mean? The first thing you need to do is take some time out from your schedule, drink plenty of water, relax, and lay off the booze until you feel better. The next step is going to see your doctor so they can recommend the right medication for you!

7. Crohn's Disease

This is one of the most serious digestive problems out there, which is why early diagnosis and treatment are so important when you have it. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease are both forms of IBD – but what does this mean in practice? In both cases, your immune system attacks healthy cells in your intestines without any apparent reason – which means being able to identify the cause as quickly as possible will be crucial if you want to avoid complications like malnutrition or weight loss. As for treatment, medications that suppress your immune system can be helpful – but they tend to lose their effect after a while. Fortunately, there are other treatments that tend to be more effective – like taking supplements and probiotics.

8. Constipation

While this sounds like one of those issues that can be quickly resolved with a simple laxative, it actually turns out to be more complicated than that. In fact, constipation has become almost as common as colds – which means you should know your symptoms if you want to treat them properly! The key thing here is paying attention to what happens when you try and go to the toilet: do you see blood or feel pain? Is there any obvious discomfort? This will help your doctor figure out exactly what's going on. Oh, and ladies – don't worry about feeling embarrassed! They're used to hearing from their patients about these sorts of things all the time!

9. Diarrhea

This is one of the most common digestive problems out there, and while it might sound like a minor issue – if left untreated, it can lead to dehydration and dangerous changes in your blood pressure. That's why you need to make sure you stay well hydrated at all times and prioritize rest and relaxation! So what does this mean? The best way to deal with diarrhea is to drink lots of water (at least eight glasses per day!) and take time out from your schedule for some much-needed rest. If the symptoms get worse or don't go away after three days, then it's time to see your doctor!

10. Ulcerative Colitis

The symptoms of ulcerative colitis can be difficult to spot at first, which is why it's considered to be the most common IBD. The symptoms are caused by inflammation in your digestive system – and it can actually lead to all sorts of other problems ... So what does this mean? If you've been experiencing diarrhea, body aches or fatigue for no reason at all – it might be time to talk with your doctor about getting tested for Ulcerative Colitis since treatment is based on the medication that reduces inflammation.

And there we have it: ten common digestive system problems and how they work. Of course, every person with one of these conditions is different – which means symptoms and a set treatment plan isn't always the same. 


Just remember that many digestive problems are usually a sign of some underlying condition, such as heartburn signalling acid reflux or constipation being a symptom of IBS. If you experience any changes in bowel movements that persist for three days or more – including diarrhea, constipation and bloating – it's important to visit your family doctor so they can check you out and let you know what might be going on. And if you notice blood in your poop or anything unusual about its appearance, always see a doctor immediately.

So, there you have it. Everything you ever wanted to know about your digestive system and then some! We hope this gave you a better understanding of how your gut works, what can go wrong, and how to keep things running smoothly. Keep in mind that everyone's digestion is different, so what works for one person might not work for another. If you experience any problems with your digestion or just want to make sure everything is running as efficiently as possible, talk to your doctor or a nutritionist who can help create a plan specific to your needs.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to check back next week as we discuss natural ways to improve your digestive health!