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The Digestive System Explained
Reprinted fromNature's Field
By W. Jean Rohrer


“Plop, plop! Fizz, fizz!” Goes the old commercial. “Oh! I ate too much!” “Yuk!” We gasp with a grimace as we slug down one of the chalky tasting and chalk-bases antacids. Long distance commutes to work which prevent eating at home; schedules that don’t allow adequate time to eat and digest properly; meals comprised of fast foods loaded with salt and fat; alcohol, smoking (believe it or not!), high stress levels—all assault our being.
Then there are the assorted prescription and over-the-counter drugs we take for our assorted ailments. Many cause direct problems for the digestive system; more affect parts of the system adversely in less direct ways. And you cannot outrun your genetic patterns. Consistent increases in both gastric and duodenal ulcers does not seem limited to shared environment.

The combination of factors assures us that most of us experience indigestion, sometimes on a regular basis. Over-the-counter sales of liquid antacids and acid blockers such as Pepcid and Zantac are skyrocketing, indicating the digestive system is assaulted and overwhelmed and cannot perform its functions properly.

Overview

The digestive system is a complex organization requiring the coordinated functioning of many independent organs. Much like an automobile factory, the raw materials are taken in, acted upon by various tools/ chemicals/agents and slowly the materials are changed into the desired product, in this case usable nutrients. Since most foods are not available in readily digestible forms, the digestive system must physically grind and chemically break down the molecules into usable form. Although some authors consider the digestive system to include the colon or large intestine, in this segment we’ll observe what happens to food from the time it enters the mouth, until it reaches the colon or intestinal system.

Parts and Pieces

Digestive System

1. Mouth—intake
a. Teeth for grinding
b. Tongue for mixing food with enzymes/saliva.
c. Salivary glands which produce enzyme-bearing fluid.


2. Epiglottis—flap for sealing off respiratory system and preventing aspiration during swallowing.

3. Esophagus—tube carrying food/saliva mix from mouth to stomach.

4. Stomach—the mixing bowl; site of molecular breakdown—pepsin and other chemicals are added to the food mix.

5. Pancreas—a gland with both exocrine (duct) and encocrine (ductless and hormonal) actions break down proteins and control blood sugar.

6. Liver—detoxifier, responsible for changing excess sugar to glycogen for storage; amino acid and vitamin storage; secretion of bile to digest fats.

7. Gall bladder—a small sac which acts as storage for bile produced by the liver; pushes bile through ducts into the small intestine to digest fats.

8. Small intestine—divided into duodenum, jejunum and ileum (head to foot), the latter which empties into the colon or large intestine.

Function

While the nervous system acts as the communications system of the city known as our physical body, and the intestinal system is the waste removal and recycling plant, the digestive system is the power plant, turning the food we eat into forms of energy the cells can use to build, reproduce, repair and perform whatever specialized function is encoded into their genes.

Foods contain three types of nutrients necessary to human functioning:
1. Carbohydrates, such as starches and sugars which are used for energy.
2. Proteins, which form the building blocks.
3. Fats, which are necessary (in limited amounts) for heat, for padding some of the abdominal organs, and as a sheath for the nervous system.
When our food intake does not contain the necessary nutrients including vitamins and minerals, the body's ability to repair itself and grow is diminished. Improper nutrition exerts a non selective effect on the body, affecting all systems; impairing energy production, weakening resistance to disease and slowing healing.

Symptoms of inadequate nutrition or deficiency begin subtly, growing into our awareness when abuses of the system begin to cause major symptoms. And even then we rarely change our eating/drinking behaviors until discomfort or illness forces us to do so. Dental hygiene in advertising promotes sex appeal, not dental health. Many folks pay little attention to their teeth unless they hurt, not realizing poor tooth care leads to tooth loss, which sorely impairs nutrition. If you can't chew, physically grinding foods and mixing them with enzymes in the mouth, the rest of the system has to work that much harder. Since each part of the system performs a vital part, missing any part makes digestion less efficient.

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Digestion actually can begin before any food has been ingested. Think of that wonderful smell of bread baking that makes your mouth water. Your digestive system has been activated, and the various organs and glands are busy pumping enzymes into the system. Salivary amylase is being secreted in the saliva, to begin carbohydrate digestion right there in the mouth. The actual gastric phase of digestion occurs when food actually gets into the stomach. The presence of food triggers the release of gastrin from the stomach wall, which in turn stimulates the release of other digestive juices. Proteins, some spices, alcohol and caffeine additionally stimulate the release of gastrin in the stomach.

Once the mash of food and enzymes (chyme) is pushed by peristalsis (wave action) into the intestine, the production or release of gastrin stops. Although a large amount of molecular breakdown takes place in the stomach, very little absorption of nutrients occurs there. How long food remains in the stomach before being further processed and absorbed in the intestine depends on the constituents of the food. Liquids pass through fastest, followed by carbs, then proteins.

Fats stay the longest in the stomach, and can remain up to six hours. That's why a large, high fat meal leaves us feeling overloaded and bloated for long periods after eating.

Ileo Cycle ValveOnce the chyme is emptied into the duodenum and stimulates the stretch receptors found in the walls, a reflex is triggered which stops gastric digestion and causes pancreatic juices to be added to the mixture. These enzymes break down proteins, fats, carbohydrates and nucleic acids into handy, molecule-sized pieces for absorption and use by the body. Additionally, the pancreas secretes an alkaline substance to neutralize the acid which arrived in the chyme.

At virtually the same geographical location as the pancreatic duct, is the intersection of the duodenum with the common bile duct from gallbladder and liver. These organs pump in bile salts and other substances to emulsify fats so they can be digested and their nutrients used more efficiently. The duodenum, jejunum an dileum which comprise the small intestine total about 20 feet in length. The inner wall of the small intestine has minuscule projections known as villi, which serve both to mix the chyme with more digestive enzymes, and to absorb the resulting nutrients. With its huge surface area (due to villi), the small intestine is the largest organ of absorption in the entire digestive tract. But absorption of nutrients is only part of the small intestine's work. In addition, the villi are also responsible for absorbing electrolytes and some water to balance the body's systems. Once the mash reaches the ileocecal valve and moves into the colon or large intestine, digestion is completed, and the mass is predominately waste, from which much of the water will be recycled and reabsorbed.

Ills and Ailments

Stomach Comfort
 
Stomach ComfortReflux, a condition in which stomach contents and acid push back into the esophagus (and sometimes leak into the trachea) is common in those persons with hiatus hernia. This is the sliding of an organ or part (usually stomach) between chest and abdomen through the opening for the esophagus. Occasionally the part becomes trapped and exceedingly painful. Since the mucous lining of the esophagus isn't designed to handle high acid conditions, problems such as ulceration can occur at the juncture between

Gastritis, inflammation of the stomach lining, is commonly considered indigestion. Frequently accompanied by distention, abdominal pain, gas, this is the classic that sends us running for the various antacids. Gastritis can be acute, chronic or toxic due to ingestion of caustics in nature, and usually starts with overeating, frequent aspirin and other non-steroidal drug use, excess alcohol intake, bacterial or viral agents. Removal of the causes can relieve this condition.

Continuation of stomach-aggravating behavior can lead to ulcer formation, in the stomach or duodenum. Approximately 25 percent of people who take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID's) develop ulcers. Considering the number of people in this country with arthritis, the potential for ulcer development is enormous and growing as the population ages.
 
Gastro Health
 

GASTRO HEALTHPeptic, or duodenal ulcers usually occur just where the stomach dumps into the small intestine; they result from either too much acid and gastric digestive juices pouring into the intestine, or weakening of the intestinal mucosal lining. An ulcer represents digestion of the organ involved (stomach ulcers are always a result of weakened resistance of the stomach lining to digestion). The bacterial agent Heliobacter pylori has been implicated in some individuals, due to toxin formation which directly harms the stomach lining. As usual, when the discovery of H. pylori was made, the medical community promptly ignored it, continuing to base treatment on the belief that ulcers were acid related. No end of poor souls suffered in the insult of a Sappy diet, and archaic mess comprised almost totally of milk and milk products in liquid form, with alternating liquid chalk preparations many of which were aluminum based.

Bland diets were imposed and physicians wondered why patients were non compliant. Now there is genetic evidence H. pylori, which thrives in stomach acid, infects about half the world's population, and is considered responsible for most cases of peptic (duodenal) ulcers and many of the gastric variety. Treatment will undoubtedly include antibiotic therapy to rid the body of the invader. More important will be determining how we contract the entity and possibly breaking that cycle of infection.

 
Activated Charcoal
 
CharcoalDiarrhea is a well known problem afflicting the American population. It is literally a speeding up of the peristaltic action which is used to move food, then waste through the system. Causes can be viral or bacterial agents, or chemicals which irritate the lining of the intestine. Emotional stress, virtually epidemic in this country, can also cause diarrhea.

Cases which continue can cause severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Given our eating habits and stress levels, it's little wonder both over-the-counter and prescription antidiarrheal medicines enjoy enormous sales.