Food and drinks enter your digestive tract through your mouth. The digestive tract consists of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and rectum. In the digestive tract, digestion takes place: your food is broken down into smaller pieces so it can be absorbed into your blood. Your body then uses these nutrients as a fuel to get energy from, or as a building material. The digestive process consists of a number of steps that we describe below.
Digestion begins in the oral cavity. When you chew, the food mixes with saliva that contains a number of enzymes that starts digestion straight away. Chewing also makes it easier to swallow the food.
After you swallow your food, it enters the esophagus. This is a long, hollow tube that carries your food and drinks towards the stomach. The muscles in the wall of your esophagus slowly knead and push the food downwards, where it enters the stomach through a sphincter at the end of the esophagus. The sphincter prevents the food from going back into the esophagus.
In your stomach, all the food is prepared for further digestion in the intestines. The food mixes with the gastric juice which is produced by the stomach wall. Stomach juice is very acidic and kills most of the bacteria you get from food so you don’t get sick. Stomach juice also contains a number of enzymes that work on breaking down food. For example, a number of proteins are already broken down in your stomach. After a few hours, the food leaves your stomach in small portions and enters the small intestine.
The small intestine is where most of the digestion takes place with the help of digestive juices and enzymes created in the pancreas, among other things. Nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins are ‘cut up’ by digestive juices and enzymes into small particles to be absorbed into the blood through the small intestine wall. The blood transports the nutrients to their destination in the body. The small intestine is about 5 metres long and consists of all kinds of folds, which provides enough surface area to properly absorb all nutrients. Through the small intestine, the food enters the large intestine.
In the colon, the final step of the digestive process takes place. The good intestinal bacteria that exist in the large intestine break down the last nutrients that are then absorbed into the blood. In the large intestine, the fluids and salts are also removed from the food pulp, creating a flexible, thick paste that can be easily excreted. Through the large intestine, the stool enters the rectum.
In the rectum, the indigestible food remains are stored. These remains leave your body as feces through the anus.
At every step of the digestive process, something can go wrong. This can happen spontaneously and disappear quickly or cause long-term symptoms due to an underlying disease or condition. Below, we discuss the most common problems that can occur in digestion.
Sometimes your body cannot break down certain nutrients properly, so they cannot be absorbed properly. This may be because certain digestive enzymes are missing or insufficiently present, which is the case with a food intolerance. Also, the process of nutrients passing through the intestine can sometimes happen too quickly, causing the food to be insufficiently broken down. Less intestinal surface area, for example due to intestinal surgery, can also cause problems with nutrient absorption. There are many other conditions that can interfere with absorption.
Sometimes your immune system reacts to certain proteins in your food. Your body will then produce antibodies against these proteins, causing an allergic reaction. For example, this is the case if you have a food allergy to gluten, cow’s milk or nuts. Such an allergy is in fact an overreaction of the immune system. An allergic reaction can cause unpleasant symptoms. Also, certain disorders of the immune system can cause a disturbed digestion.
Where a normal stool is smooth and easy to excrete, it can also be too thick, making it harder to go to the toilet. If this is the case, you are suffering from constipation. In cases of constipation, there is not enough liquid in your stool. When there is too much fluid in the stool, it is called diarrhoea. In addition to diarrhoea and constipation, there may be other problems with the stool, such as a changed odor, color or consistency.
There are numerous conditions that can cause an overall upset of the stomach or intestines. For example, inflammation can occur throughout the gastrointestinal tract or just in specific areas of the intestine, which is the case in Crohn’s disease or Colitis Ulcerosa. These conditions can severely impair bowel function and digestion. Disturbed bowel function can also cause the bowel to become irritable, as in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In addition, gastrointestinal surgeries, infections and tumors can interfere with gastrointestinal function and therefore interfere with digestion.
Good digestion contributes to a healthy and fit body that makes you feel good. A few simple life rules can contribute to a healthy digestion and therefore a healthier body. They also help to increase your resistance so you are less likely to get sick.
What you put in your mouth largely determines how your digestion works. Only with the right nutrients will you get enough fuel and building blocks to allow all body functions to run smoothly. The foundation for a healthy digestion is a complete diet with a sufficient amount of dietary fibre and moisture. A dietitian can give you advice on the diet that suits you best.
Exercise is incredibly important for proper digestion. When you move, the heart pumps blood through your body faster and your metabolism is stimulated. Your intestines function better when you exercise. The blood circulates faster and nutrients are absorbed more quickly and efficiently. By exercising sufficiently, you also have less chance of obesity and you stimulate your immune system. So, by exercising, you keep your whole body, but especially your digestive system, in excellent condition.
For a healthy digestive system, you need rest and relaxation. Long-term exposure to stress can be damaging to digestion. By avoiding stress as much as possible and making sure you have a good sleep rhythm and enough relaxation, you help your digestive system to digest your food and drink properly. Also, try to allow your body some rest after meals and don’t eat and drink in a hurry.
Various conditions such as food intolerance can affect your digestion. We have listed the most common conditions for you.
irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
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A food intolerance is a hypersensitive reaction to an ingredient in food, such as lactose. With a food intolerance, there is often a problem in…
In a food allergy, the immune system overreacts to certain proteins in your food and starts making antibodies. Proteins that cause this reaction are called…