Eat, drink and be merry! Sounds good, and it probably is – until something starts to go wrong. Call it a gut feeling. Literally.
The gut, or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, is a miracle of nature. You probably take it for granted most of the time, but it’s the superhighway of the digestive system.
The food you eat travels this highway. It starts its journey in the mouth, moves down the oesophagus, enters the stomach, and passes through the small and large intestine. The GI tract is far more than a transport corridor, though. Complex digestive processes are happening along its whole length.
Your teeth begin the work, physically cutting and grinding the food and breaking it down so the chemical enzymes can get to work. After you’ve swallowed, waves of muscular contractions in the oesophagus, stomach and intestines push food down through the gut in a squeezing motion called peristalsis.
Even before you’ve taken a mouthful, the sight and the smell of food have stimulated saliva and stomach enzymes that are so important for the digestive process. These and many other chemical elements collaborate at various points along the journey.
- In the mouth, saliva lubricates the food and starts to break down starches.
- In the stomach, acids, enzymes and hormones do their work.
- Bile secreted from the gall bladder helps digest fatty foods
- Compounds from the pancreas perform their chemical functions in the small intestine.
In a process called metabolism, food is converted into energy to fuel every cell of the body.
But there’s more…
The gut microbiome
The lining of the gut is a sensitive and complex system, inhabited by trillions of microorganisms. A range of fungi, bacteria, viruses, and parasites make up your gut microbiome, or microflora. It is a responsive and changing environment – a miniature ecosystem inside your body.
As well as having a vital role in digestion, this community of microbes is crucial to your general health and wellbeing.
The type and number of bacteria are particularly important. Imbalances can cause problems in the digestive system.
Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), for example, is a typical and increasingly common condition, which can lead to a range of symptoms, including abdominal pain, flatulence, bloating, reflux, nausea,constipation or diarrhoea.
The role of the nervous system
Your nervous system is the basically the driver, controlling the mechanical and chemical functions of the digestive process, all along the GI tract. That’s why it’s important to avoid stress, which affects the nerves and, as a result, your digestive processes.
A healthy gut microbiome is crucial to the processing and absorption of nutrients, and your body’s ability to access vitamins and minerals.
Listen to your gut! It’s a microenvironment you need to protect.