If you often feel cramping, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or pain in your gut, you must know that digestive woes are extremely common. In America 60 to 70 million people live with a digestive disease, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
From chronic constipation to Crohn’s disease and from gallstones to gastroesophageal reflux disease, digestive problems can dramatically lower your quality of life. Understanding how the digestive system works can help you improve your digestive health and reduce uncomfortable or painful symptoms.
The Components of the Digestive System
Humans have a monogastric digestive system, consisting of a simple, single-chambered stomach. One of 11 major systems in the human body, the digestive system is comprised of organs, nerves, hormones, blood, and bacteria that convert food into energy. Here are the major players in digestion:
The Mouth – Chewing food breaks it into easily digestible pieces. Saliva in the mouth begins the process of breaking down the food so it can be digested. Once you swallow the food, it enters the esophagus, which carries it to the stomach.
The Stomach – Food enters the stomach, where corrosive hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes further break down the food, turning it into a liquid called “chyme.”
The Liver – The function of the liver in the digestion process is to produce bile, which is released into the small intestine to help enzymes in the body break down fats into fatty acids.
The Pancreas – The spongy, tube-shaped pancreas secretes digestive enzymes into the small intestine to help digest fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. The pancreas also produces the hormone insulin, which controls the amount of blood sugar in the body.
The Small Intestine – The small intestine is a tube with a diameter of about an inch and a length of about 20 feet. The broken-down food chyme moves from the stomach into the small intestine, passing through the pyloric sphincter, which is a muscle that acts like a valve to prevent the food from moving back into the stomach.
The walls of the small intestine consist of folds and ridges that increase its surface area so that the intestine can absorb the nutrients from the food. Small, hair-like structures called villi contain enzymes that further break down the food for optimal absorption.
The Colon – The colon, also known as the large intestine, is about two and a half inches in diameter and around five feet long. Once the food moves through the small intestine and the bulk of the nutrients are absorbed, it moves into the large intestine, where the good bacteria known as flora break down waste and extract whatever nutrients are left. During its trip through the colon, the liquid waste becomes more solid as water is absorbed by the large intestine’s walls. This substance is the stool, which consists mostly of food debris and bacteria.
The Rectum – When the colon becomes full, its contents empty into the rectum, which begins the process of elimination, sending the stool through the anus and out of the body.
Now that you understand the basics of how your digestive system works, let’s look at some ways you can improve and optimize its function.
7 Simple Tips to Improve Digestion
Improving the function of your digestive system can help reduce the symptoms of a range of digestive problems and improve your overall health. Here are some tips for achieving optimal digestive health.
1 – Chew thoroughly: The more you chew your food, the better your teeth and saliva will break it down, reducing the amount of work the other digestive organs must do in order to absorb nutrients.
Tip: Chewing each bit between 30-40 times before swallowing can make a big difference.
2 – Eat lots of fiber: Fiber keeps food moving efficiently through the intestines. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and is turned into a gel-like substance that’s digested by the bacteria in the large intestine, releasing gases.
Tip: Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve and adds bulk to the stool to help keep it solid. American Heart Association recommends 25 grams per day for an adult consuming a 2,000-calorie daily diet.
3 – Stay well hydrated: Water aids the digestion process by dissolving fats and soluble fiber, allowing food to pass through the intestine more easily.
Tip: Many health experts agree that around 8, 8-ounce glasses of water (or ½ a gallon) of water is the ideal amount of daily water. This is often referred to as the 8×8 rule to help make it easy to remember.
4 – Exercise: Exercise speeds up the digestive process by increasing blood flow to essential organs and strengthening the muscles in the digestive system.
Tip: 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week is generally a good goal. Combine some of each and keep in mind that the more you exercise, generally the healthier you will be.
5 – Reduce your stress: Stress can do a number on your digestive system, worsening symptoms of IBS, ulcers, and other digestion problems.
Tip: Keeping stressors under control and reducing your stress on the spot with meditation, deep breathing, yoga, or exercise can help improve digestion and reduce uncomfortable digestive symptoms.
6 – Take a probiotic: Probiotics help create the ideal environment in the gut for optimal absorption of nutrients. They reduce bad bacteria in the gut and promote the growth of good bacteria to keep your digestion system working properly.
Tip: Stonehenge Health’s Dynamic Biotics contain 51 billion live probiotic cultures per serving, spanning 16 dynamic probiotic strains and is the optimal amount as recommend by doctors to keep your gut health and your body happy.
7 – Take a prebiotic: Prebiotics feed and nourish healthy gut flora. Keeping the good gut bacteria probiotics feed is crucial for optimal digestion.
Tip: Stonehenge Health’s Ultimate Prebiotic Complex improves nutrient absorption and improves the balance of the flora in your gut.
An overall healthy lifestyle that includes nutritious foods, plenty of exercise, and adequate sleep can go a long way toward keeping your digestive system working optimally. Prebiotics and probiotics keep your gut flora healthy and balanced, while adequate hydration keeps things running smoothly.
Lots of things can affect your digestion, so a multi-pronged approach to digestive health is best for improving it for the long-term.