Making sure our digestive systems are healthy and functioning the way they should, can sometimes be hard to master. Discover how with Dr Paul Stillman.
Keeping our digestive systems healthy can help us not only feel better but also help our bodies function the way they should without any issues. Thanks to Dr Paul Stillman, we can gain a better understanding of exactly how to take care of the digestive system, and how to make sure we are looking after it, in the best way possible.
The adult human intestines are around nine metres (that’s 30 feet) long, consisting of basically a single tube from the mouth to the anus with a lining if stretched out, of around 36 square metres. Its function is vital – to extract the nutrients and other useful raw materials from food to fuel and maintain the body, and then to excrete unwanted waste products.
In the mouth, chewing breaks up food into smaller pieces, which are swallowed down the oesophagus into the stomach. With a capacity of 1-2 litres and containing acid as strong as in a car battery, the digestive process begins in earnest. From there muscular contractions propel the contents down the long and narrow small intestine, added early on by digestive juices from the pancreas, liver, and lining of the intestine itself.
Next comes the large intestine, including the tiny appendix, the colon and finally rectum. During passage waste products are added to the mix, and water is reabsorbed into the body until there is little left of any use.
The process of digestion is a complex action that the body undertakes once food has been consumed. Acid, bile, enzymes and biochemicals from the lining of the gut all act to break down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates as well as freeing vitamins, minerals, and water to be adsorbed into the bloodstream and used in metabolism, maintenance, and repair either immediately or later on.
The intestine is also home to incredible numbers of microorganisms, mostly bacteria. There may be 100 trillion in a single body, many performing tasks we cannot, such as fermenting dietary fibre into nutrient fatty acids, secreting vitamins, or resisting infection. Unsurprisingly these have come to be known as ‘good’ or ‘friendly’ bacteria.
Unfortunately, there are also less helpful strains that have been implicated in the development of obesity and colon cancer, amongst others. For decades scientists researched how this balance could be influenced, the major problem being the acidity in the stomach. Normally an effective barrier to prevent infection, only recently have bacterial strains been identified that can survive and help colonise the intestine lower down.
Obviously, a healthy and sensible diet is the starting point. Eating enough, but not too much, taken with sufficient fluid, and spread throughout the day, not all in one go. Moderating fat intake, like fried foods, in favour of lean meat and fish, grilled rather than fried food, and skimmed or semi-skimmed milk.
However, in order to keep your digestive system healthy, there are a few foodstuffs that you need to be careful of. Beware of added salt and a lot of spices, for some people these have caused indigestion and other digestion problems. The list is long and individual but includes acidic fruit, fizzy drinks, coffee, tea, and of course alcohol. There are also those who cannot tolerate lactose, which is present in milk and dairy products including chocolate, yoghurt, and cheese.
Now the trouble with dietary advice is that it sounds really boring, but most people find that sensible moderation and understanding that everyone is different produces not only good health, with benefits to the heart and other systems as well as a healthy digestive system, but a tastier more satisfying and above all trouble-free life.
Fortunately, there are things we can do as well as things we shouldn’t. Firstly, it’s those friendly bacteria. Probiotics can help to improve the ‘microbiome’ as it is called and the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhoea and the side effects of some medications including antibiotics. They may also decrease the likelihood of developing diabetes, and even conditions such as some forms of arthritis. They must be taken regularly to work, and there’s a ‘but’.
Such products, although widely available, are not classed as medicines and therefore not as tightly regulated. We can’t count the number of bacteria in the bottle, so how can we be sure there is enough, and of the right sort? Reassurance can only come from buying from a respected company, with a good track record. Need I say more?
Other digestion supplements including ginger and peppermint have been shown to aid digestion and are difficult to take in foods in the concentrations and frequency required. As a result, we all need to get savvy on our digestive system health and make sure it gets that TLC to help keep our bodies digestively fit.
Now that you know all there is to know about the digestive system, the process of digestion, and how to keep our gut healthy, why not further your knowledge and take a look at our article, about acid reflux, and how the two are connected, next.