Your Digestive system is amazing.... or is it?

I ask the question because your digestive system is amazing... if it is working properly!

Before I started looking into Irritable Bowel Syndrome I thought that the digestive system was pretty basic: it digested your food, got you what you needed and that was that!

Things like headaches, aching joints and muscles and skin and scalp problems were a completely different issue that needed to be treated seperately.

However, although there are major problems that need to be dealt with as separate medical conditions, if you have a few of these things all causing ongoing problems then your digestive system not working properly could be the key to much better health.

The digestive system is pretty complicated so we need to start with the basics and then I go into more detail for the specific areas that affect your health and immune system.

the digestive system

Your digestive system or digestive tract is made up of:

  • The mouth
  • The oesophagus
  • The Stomach
  • The small intestine
  • The large intestine (also called the colon)
  • The rectum
  • The Anus
The Human gastrointestinal tract usually refers to the stomach and the intestines but is also often used to mean the digestive system outlined above.

The time taken for food to travel through the digestive system varies loads and depends on what has been eaten. It takes each mouthful of food about 6 seconds to reach the stomach so that is why it is really inmportant not to eat too fast! It then takes about 3 hours for the stomach to empty half it's contents into the small intestine and around 5 hours to completely empty.

So what happens in the Stomach?

When the food enters the stomach the 3 layers of muscles enable it to mix the food around with all the stomach's acidic digestive jucices and enzymes. It's interesting to know that carbohydrates don't stay very long in the stomach while proteins need longer and then fats the longest.

Heartburn is a really common problem that people will have heard of and many also experienced. The proper name for this is called acid reflux which is when stomach acid leaks into the oesphagus which has no protection from the acid from the stomach.

The acid in the stomach also helps kill dangerous bacteria and other microorganisms which is the first part of the digestive systems role in helping our immune system.

Once the food has been broken down enough, into a mixture called chyme, the pyloric sphincter, which is an opening controlled by muscle at the bottom of the stomach, opens and lets some of the digested mixture through a little at a time. It is designed to only open enough to let through food that has been broken down sufficiently.

The Small intestine

The name given to this part of the digestive system seems strange as it is up to 20 foot long! The name is given due to it's diameter, as it is narrower than the large intestine or colon. Both the pancreas and the liver play a really important role as the food enters the small intestine.

The pancreas releases many different enzymes that help break down your carbohydrates, proteins and fats. The liver produces bile (which is stored in the gall bladder) and this dissolves or breaks down fats so the enzymes from the pancreas can digest them.
The structure of the small intestine is vital to the way it works. Not only is it long but it has folds of villi all along the inner surface of the intestine, which each have microvilli (small fingerlike folds) on them. This really increases the surface area to allow maximum absortion of food.

villi small intestine

For people with irritable bowel syndrome, this area of the digestive system is not usually the part that causes too many issues. (Crohn's disease however, is one of the major digestive disorders that does affect the small intestine)

Obviously, if you eat a poor diet that is high in fat and low in fibre, the gaps between all these villi can get clogged and blocked. In this case your food is just sliding through your gut without maximum absorbtion occurring.

Consequently, you could be missing out on vital nutrients that are just passing straight through your intestine rather than being absorbed.

If this is you now, or you in the past then your small instestine does need a a clean out!

There are a few ways to accomplish this, the first is to cut out as much fat as possible and do at least a month on a diet containing as much raw food as possible, combine this with carbohydrates that are preferably gluten free or at least wheat free, that also have a lot of fibre. For example, brown rice, oats and rye. For more information on a diet like this click here.

The other way is to try drinking a pure Aloe Vera Gel which has great properties in helping the digestion and clearing your gut of any clogged up food. To learn more about Aloe Vera Gel click here. Along the whole length of the small and large intestine lining, there are also goblet cells which produce mucus. The mucus helps the food move through the gut easily and protects it from the digestive enzymes and other microorganisms that might have made it passed the somach acid. This again adds to it's role in our immune system.

The most important point of this is that the gut should, if it working properly, only allow the right things to be absorbed. However, when problems arise with our gut, often toxins and other harmful things can get into our blood stream from the instestine that cause all manner of problems.

A main culprit of this is called Candida Albicans (a yeast) infection. To find out more about candida click here. (particularly if you feel bloated and tired after eating meals)

The large intestine or colon consists of four sections (in humans!)

  • The ascending colon
  • The transverse colon
  • The descending colon
  • The sigmoid colon

The majority of people, if they have problems with their digestive system have problems with their colon!

When food enters the large bowel it can take around 16 hours or longer to complete the digestive process. However, amazingly nearly all nutrients and most of the water has been already absorbed and the large bowel contains no digestive enzymes.

It's major role is to absorb the remaining water and salts and to break down the undigested carbohydrates. As the colon is often responsible for most digestive problems I have written a seperate page in more depth. To learn more about the large intestine click here

The large bowel or colon also contains over 700 different species of bacteria (probiotics).

These bacteria or 'gut flora' are vital to the large bowel functioning as it should.

For the majority of people that have difficulties with their digestive system or other related problems, such as headaches, skin issues, joint problems, ME or Chronic Fatigue and even major problems such as Ulcerative Colitis, these bacteria not working effectively are often the cause. (Some Doctors at least, are just starting to realise this and link these to other health problems)

I plan to do a separate page on these probiotics, but in the meantime I would encourage you to read this page about candida as mentioned earlier.

This yeast infection in the large bowel occurs due to the bacteria being killed off for a variety of reasons and might help you find out if you could be suffering from this and what to do about it.

Please feel free to click on these links to find out more about other areas that could really help your digestive system and consequently your overall health.

Return to understanding your Irritable bowel home page from the digestive system

Find out more about aloe vera gel from the digestive system