Understanding Digestion and Why Digestive Problems Occur
The human digestive system is made up of a group of organs that work together to break down food and absorb its nutrients. It also includes the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, a hollow muscular tube that starts at the mouth and ends at the anus. Parts of the digestive system include the esophagus, liver, stomach, gallbladder, pancreas, large intestine, small intestine, and the anus. Its primary functions include the secretion of fluids and digestive enzymes, the mixing and movement of food and wastes through the body, digestion of food into smaller pieces, and the absorption of nutrients.
Breaking Down Digestion
Digestion begins in the mouth. When you take a bite of food, you chew the food into pieces to make it easier to digest. Saliva mixes with the food which helps the body better break it down and absorb it. Food particles then travel down the throat, into the esophagus, and finally to the stomach. In the stomach, food is mixed with powerful acids and enzymes that help break down the food further. From the stomach, the food (which is now a paste or liquid known as chyme) is moved to the small intestine. Chyme is also mixed with bile from the gallbladder and digestive enzymes from the pancreas which also aid in digestion.
As the chyme moves into the small intestine, water and nutrients are absorbed into the body. The migrating motor complex, which creates wave-like movements of the intestinal walls, is highly active in moving bacteria and debris down to the large bowel. These movements are most common between meals and while fasting at night. On average, a person has nine to eleven waves per day. However, when bowel problems are present like in the case of a small intestinal bacteria overgrowth (SIBO), these waves can slow down to as few as three per day.
Once waste material enters the large intestine, more water is absorbed into the body. The colon, which extends five to six feet long, is made up of the cecum, ascending colon, transverse colon, descending colon, and sigmoid colon. While waste enters the large colon in a liquid state, it ultimately forms a solid state as water is removed from the stool. It takes an average of 36 hours for stool to get all the way through the colon. The waste material is then eliminated through the rectum.
Digestive System Problems
Problems can occur at any point along the digestive tract, resulting in uncomfortable digestive and systemic body symptoms. Common digestive complaints include low stomach acid, gallbladder dysfunction, low digestive enzyme production, intestinal mobility issues, overgrowth of fungus or bacteria, lack of good flora, and dehydration.
Bloating, gas, constipation, abdominal pain, loose stools, acid reflux, and cramping are also common digestive system complaints. Problems of the digestive system can also cause systemic symptoms, such as weight loss, fatigue, malabsorption of iron or vitamins, joint pain, hair loss, headaches, and skin conditions like acne, eczema, and rosacea.
Treating Digestive Problems
When diagnosing digestive problems, it is important to look at the symptoms. Is the problem caused by dysbiosis due to an overgrowth of yeast or bacteria in the intestinal tract? A Naturopathic Doctor trained in testing digestive health concerns can obtain a clinical history which can provide clues to which part of the digestive system is affected. For example, if a patient complains of frequent bloating or belching after a meal, this could indicate a problem with low digestive enzymes, low stomach acid, or low bile production. If symptoms develop following an acute stomach bacterial infection, a course of antibiotics may be helpful. Proper testing could confirm.
Treating digestive problems can be challenging due to the complexity of the gastrointestinal tract and the various organs that can cause symptoms. Fortunately, there are many lab tests for evaluating digestive health concerns. For more information about treatments for digestive problems, contact one of our Naturopathic Doctors at Vitalia Health Care.
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