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Digestion

What it is, What can go WRONG!

What Happens When There are Problems with your Digestion?

 Your digestive tract is a 25-foot to 35-foot long hose that is an engineering marvel. It takes foods - a whole apple for example - chops it up, breaks it down, separates the good from the bad, extracts nutrients, and delivers them to the body.

If a component of the digestive system malfunctions, it may result in a minor, localized problem or a serious, "whole body" problem. It is important, then, to know how digestion works and what can go wrong.

Mouth

The mouth is where the digestive process begins. The teeth break down foods into smaller particles, and enzymes in saliva begin the process of digestion.

Problems: Swallowing foods that have been chewed very little can result in less nutrition from the food, difficult passage of the food through the esophagus, and possible choking. Eating quickly and "swallowing air" can result in gas and indigestion. The solution is simple: Chew your food well and eat slowly.

Esophagus

When you swallow, food descends the esophagus - the "tube" connecting the mouth to the stomach. Separating the esophagus from he stomach is a "door" called the esophageal sphincter. This door keeps stomach acid and food from coming back up into the esophagus.

Problems: Heartburn results when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus. This commonly results in a "burning" sensation in the chest, belching, or a sour taste in the mouth. Heartburn can also result from lying down, bending over, wearing tight-fitting clothes, overeating, and eating certain foods.

A hiatal hernia is the abnormal protrusion of the top of the stomach into the chest. This may be caused by constipation, as straining may push the stomach upward. A hiatal hernia is actually a common occurrence and generally does not cause any problems. However, a hiatal hernia sometimes results in heartburn.

To relieve heartburn, eat healthy foods such as fruits, and vegetables and avoid alcohol, coffee, and high-fat, fried, and spicy foods. If you experience heartburn in the middle of night, try to eat at least four hours before going to bed. Raising the head of your bed some six inches may also help. Drink cabbage juice or ginger tea. Some health practitioners recommend osteopathic care and chiropractic adjustments for a hiatal hernia. for constipation, eat a diet high in fiber.

Stomach

In the stomach, food is further digested by hydrochloric acid and enzymes. The stomach behaves like a washing machine, churning the digesting food into a mush known as chyme. The stomach is coated with a thick layer of mucus, which prevents the hydrochloric acid from burning a hole through the stomach lining.

Problems: Ulcers occur when gastric juice burns a hole in the lining of your stomach. For years, it was believed that ulcers were caused by high stomach acidity and stress; now we know that most ulcers are caused by the bacteria Helicobacter pylori.

Hypochlorhydria, or low stomach acid, may be prevalent among half the population over 60. Low levels of stomach acid can result in less than optimal absorption of nutrients, overgrowth of bacteria, and a greater likelihood of food poisoning.

For ulcers, many health practitioners recommend antibiotics and natural therapies. These include using antiparasitic herbs, aloe vera, cabbage juice, and vitamin A.

For hypochlorhydria, consider using digestive enzymes to aid with digestion, taking supplements to make up nutrient deficiencies resulting from the condition, chewing food thoroughly, eating frequent and small meals, and avoiding drinking liquids with meals.

Small Intestines, Pancreas, and Liver

Food passes from the stomach into the small intestine, where it is broken down into its smaller parts. Bile from the liver and enzymes secreted by the pancreas break down carbohydrates into simple sugars, proteins into amino acids, and fat into fatty acids. Millions of villis - tiny "fingers" - absorb these nutrients as well as vitamins and minerals and pass them into the blood. From here, the blood transports the nutrients to the liver, which filters the blood and converts the nutrients into a useable form. The nutrients are then sent throughout the body via the bloodstream.

Problems: Flatulence and gas, although normal, can be excessive and embarrassing. Unknown to many, most gas comes from air - either air we "swallow" while eating, or foods that contain air, such as whipped foods and carbonated drinks. Gas is also caused by food that is not fully digested. The bacteria in the intestine devour this food, and the by-product is gas.

Because fiber is not digested, gas can result. People who suddenly begin a high-fiber diet often find themselves with gas problems. The key is to start slowly and chew food well. Some health practitioners recommend taking digestive enzymes and probiotics. Probiotics are either the "friendly bacteria" found in the digestive system, or the food for them.

An increasing problem is parasites. These are often carried into our bodies through food and drink. They make a home in the intestines and contribute to a number of health problems. Constant diarrhea, constipation, gas, fatigue, weight loss, teeth grinding can signal that you have parasites.

If you feel you have parasites, you should be tested by a health practitioner. Certain foods are known antiparasitics. These include garlic and pumpkin seeks. there are a number of herbs that fight parasites as well. These include wormseed, sweet annie, and black walnut.

Good for Digestion

  • Fiber adds bulk to stool, allowing them to move more easily and more quickly through the colon. fiber can also "sweep away" harmful toxins. good sources of fiber include beans, oat bran, and psyllium.
  • Yogurt contains "good bacteria," which are important to the digestive tract. If the "bad bacteria" overwhelm the "good bacteria, "health problems can arise.
  • Aloe Vera aids digestion by softening stools.
  • Raw fruits and vegetables contain digestive enzymes that will help with digestion.
  • Water helps lubricate the digestive tract.

Large Intestine (colon)

When all the nutrients have been absorbed, water, fiber, and bacteria pass through the ileocecal valve to the colon. The colon absorbs water and any remaining nutrients and forms stool. The stool are then excreted.

The colon contains trillions of bacteria, which help regulate the environment and ensure that disease-causing microbes are destroyed.

Problems: An imbalance in the levels of "friendly" and "unfriendly" bacteria in the colon, and a malfunctioning ileocecal valve (waste matter in the colon can be mixed with useful material in the small intestine and eventually be absorbed by the body) can result in dysbiosis.

Dysbiosis, which means "not in harmony," was originally coined early in this century. Dysbiosis weakens our ability to protect ourselves from disease-causing microbes. According to Elizabeth Lipski, in her book "Digestive Wellness", published researched has listed dysbiosis as a cause of arthritis, auto-immune illness, vitamin B12 deficiency, chronic fatigue syndrome, cystic acne, early stages of colon and breast cancers, eczema, food allergy/sensitivity, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis, and steatorrhea (excess fat in the stools).

To combat dybiosis, keep the level of friendly and unfriendly bacteria in balance. Avoid using antibiotics, or if you must, be sure you take a probiotic supplement (giving the body more "good bacteria"). Consuming yogurt also provides this.

More well-known to most of us are constipation and diarrhea. Constipation - difficult bowel movements - can result in straining that in turn can result in hiatal hernia. Although North americans spends millions of dollars on constipation, it can easily be helped by eating foods high in fiber, taking fiber supplements, and drinking plenty of liquids. for stubborn cases, natural laxatives such as cascara sagrada may be used. Yogurt contains "friendly bacteria," and this also may be helpful.

Diarrhea results when food travels too quickly through the colon. Water is not well-absorbed and the result is a runny stool. it can be dangerous, especially to children, because it leads to the malabsorption of nutrients and loss of fluids. Indeed, cholera kills not so much because of the disease, but because of the diarrhea that comes with it.

Diarrhea is not a disease, but the symptom of something else. It can be due to drugs, diverticular disease, foods, parasites, and many other conditions. What to do depends on the type of diarrhea. It may be a short-term effect due to eating something your body considers toxic, or long-term due to parasite infestations. consult a health practitioner if diarrhea is prolonged.

Hemorrhoids occur when blood vessels in and around the anus swell and stretch under pressure. They are prevalent among people over the age of 50. The most frequent cause of hemorrhoids is constipation. They can also occur due to pregnancy and diarrhea. The best thing you can do to prevent hemorrhoids is prevent constipation - consume plenty of fiber and liquids.

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The article "Digestion: What it is, What can go Wrong" is reproduced with the permission of AIM International
© 1998 by AIM International. Partner's Magazine, July, '98

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