Digestive health can impact our wellbeing quite significantly. If it’s healthy, we feel good, if it isn’t, we can run into a whole host of problems.
It is actually very closely related to human emotions, so if somebody is stressed, they can be physically affected by problems like stomach ache and diarrhoea. In fact, 40% of us have at least one digestive issue at any one time, e.g. indigestion.
The human digestive system processes the food we eat and breaks down proteins into amino acids, fats into fatty acids, and carbohydrates into simple sugars. It also absorbs minerals, vitamins and other essential nutrients.
The whole process requires the cooperation of several organs which form a complex network to break down food into various compounds and then pass out what’s not needed as waste. The process of digestion takes 6 hours on average, but can take up to one day for heavier meals.
Our emotions are closely linked to the digestive system. It actually has over 100,000 nerve cells, which is why we may feel butterflies or suffer stomach issues when we feel stressed or nervous.
The mouth: Your teeth break down food into small pieces, while the sight and aromas of tasty food kicks the saliva glands into action. Saliva continues to break down food with the help of the enzyme amylase, which starts the process of turning carbohydrates into sugars.
However, if you talk while you eat or rush your meal, you can end up swallowing air, which can lead to bloating, flatulence or burping.
The oesophagus: When swallowed, food travels down the oesophagus to your stomach by automatic waves or contractions, also known as peristalsis.
The stomach: As food travels down the oesophagus, a signal is sent to the valve at the top of your stomach to open. When food reaches the stomach, gastric juices that contain stomach acid and enzymes that break down proteins transform it into a liquid called chyme. Chyme is then moved into your small intestine by peristalsis.
The small intestine: Also known as the duodenum or small bowel, the small intestine is where most nutrients are absorbed into your bloodstream. This process is carried out by minute, finger-like structures called villi, which line the small intestine walls.
The liver, gallbladder and pancreas: Bile is made in the liver, stored in your gallbladder and released into your small intestine so it can break down fats. At the same time, your pancreas creates enzymes that help the digestive system to break down fats, proteins and carbohydrates into small particles that can be absorbed into your bloodstream.
The large intestine: Finally, the large intestine, aka the large bowel or colon, absorbs remaining nutrients and water. This is the process that makes waste products solid and easier to pass – yes, we’re talking about poo! When enough waste builds up in the lowest part of the large intestine (the rectum), the body creates that urge to go to the loo.
One of the most common symptoms of indigestion is heartburn: chest pain from indigestion which creates an unpleasant burning sensation. This is caused by stomach acid travelling back up into your oesophagus. Smoking, stress, obesity and some medicines and foods can make heartburn more likely.
There are a few simple things that you can do to help relieve the symptoms of indigestion. One is making sure you keep well hydrated and another is making sure you fit some physical activity into your daily routine – exercise in general helps to increase friendly gut bacteria.