The Basics of Digestion
Digestion is a complex process encompassing the breakdown of food, absorption of nutrients and the elimination of waste. The breakdown of food starts in the mouth with chewing, which mixes the food with salivary enzymes. The stomach then produces hydrochloric acid for the first step in the digestion of protein. The pH of the stomach is very acidic and the stomach lining must have a strong protective barrier to protect itself from the acid. Next, food moves to the small intestine where the acid is neutralized by pancreatic secretions. The pancreas also produces enzymes for the digestion of protein, fats and carbohydrates. Bile from the liver is stored in the gallbladder which then releases it into the small intestine to break up the fats.
Once the enzymes have properly broken the food into small particles, it is then absorbed into the bloodstream as it passes through the small intestine wall. The liver works to detoxify many compounds, both foreign and made in the body. Once these compounds are transformed, the liver excretes them into the bile where they can then be eliminated through the digestive tract. Some compounds, such as hormones, can be changed again in the intestine , where they are reabsorbed into the bloodstream and recycled through the body. The colon, or large intestine is normally full of healthy bacteria or flora, which serve many functions. They keep unhealthy bacteria, viruses, yeast and parasites from setting up residence. They ferment fiber to produce healthy fatty acids. They help in the recycling of nutrients and hormones. In fact, most of the dry weight of stool is bacteria. The colon reabsorbs or adds water to the stool, and can dilute and hasten the elimination of toxins through contractions and the formation of watery bowel movements.
Two of the best supplements for many digestive disorders are probiotics (good bacterial flora) and fiber. Unfortunately, many of the probiotic supplements do not actually contain the amounts and the types of flora that the label claims. The best products are usually refrigerated, have an expiration date, and have a guarantee of the number of live bacteria they contain. L. Acidophilus and bifidobacteria are the two most important bacteria to look for on the label. Lactobacillus G.G. has also been studied extensively. They are particularly helpful in benign conditions which manifest with diarrhea. I usually recommend the dairy free types since many people have difficulty with digesting milk products.
Fiber is of two main types, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber, like psyllium seed husk powder and oat bran, dissolves in water and can hold many times its weight in water. It can help cholesterol pass through and not be absorbed which can help lower high cholesterol levels. It can reabsorb excess fluid and help reduce diarrhea. It can also soften and bulk stool to help with constipation. Insoluble fiber such as wheat bran, absorbs some water but acts more as a bulking agent which pushes more waste through the colon.
Many people have digestive problems which result from food intolerance or food allergy. Milk and wheat are the most common offenders. Milk products can cause problems if they are not digested well, which is called a lactose intolerance. Wheat and other gluten containing grains can cause reactions in people with gluten intolerance. Both of these intolerances can vary in severity from mild to severe, and even vary over time within the same person. Stress will affect a person’s ability to digest. The same chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) that are in the brain are also found in the intestine. There really is such a thing as “gut feelings”.
The best way to acheive optimal wellness is to find a licensed naturopathic doctor then you will also have access to professional quality herbal and nutritional supplements that can be the most effective. It this is not possible, there are good online natural pharmacies.