Many might consider the heart and brain to be the most important organs. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract, however, is vital to lifelong health and longevity. Many of us have heard the adage, “You are what you eat.” It may be time to amend that saying to “You are what you digest and absorb.” Two important functions of the GI tract are to break down and absorb the foods and liquids we consume; nourishment that is necessary to support life. A poorly functioning GI tract can be the starting point for many chronic health problems that can negatively affect your quality of life.
During digestion, two main processes occur simultaneously:
- Mechanical digestion begins in the mouth where food is broken down into smaller pieces, preparing for chemical digestion as the journey continues to the stomach.
- Chemical digestion also begins in the mouth and continues to the intestines where enzymes break down the food into smaller, absorbable molecules that fuel the body and provide energy.
The nervous system and hormones of the digestive system control the movement and flow of chemicals in the stomach. These hormones turn off stomach action in response to food products in the liver and gallbladder that have yet to be absorbed. The stomach acts as storage for food while the small intestine is full and still digesting. The stomach then pushes food into the small intestine as it empties.
Most chemical and mechanical digestion takes place in the small intestine. Bile secreted by the liver helps neutralize stomach acids. Pancreatic juices, which enter the small intestine through the duodenum, continue the digestive process. Bile acids must be present for fat soluble vitamin absorption to occur. Fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, vitamin B12, and bile salts are all absorbed in the ileum of the small intestine. The cells that line the ileum contain the protease and carbohydrate enzymes responsible for the final stages of protein and carbohydrate digestion. Through this process, proteins are broken down into amino acids, starches into sugars and fats into fatty acids and glycerol. Tiny projections called villi line the small intestine and absorb digested food into the bloodstream and lymphatic system, where they are circulated throughout the body.
After a meal, it takes approximately one hour for half of the stomach contents to empty into the small intestine. The small intestine takes 1 -2 hours to empty half its contents. Final elimination through the colon varies with individuals and can take anywhere from 12 -50 hours.
The length of the GI tract varies and can stretch from 20 – 40 feet in length. As a prominent part of the immune system, the GI tract has a large exposure to pathogens. The immune system works diligently to prevent bacteria and infection causing germs from entering into the bloodstream and lymphatic system. The mucus of the stomach combined with the low pH level help to neutralize or destroy potentially harmful microorganisms and bacteria. Bile enzymes play a role in the detoxification of antigens that the body recognizes as foreign invaders. Healthy intestinal bacteria also help to keep harmful bacteria under control. A ratio of 80 – 85% beneficial bacteria to 15 – 20% potentially harmful bacteria is considered normal.
Stomach disorders are common and include a variety of causes and symptoms. The lining of the stomach needs to maintain the correct balance of acid and mucus. Excess stomach acid can cause ulcers, abdominal pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea and vomiting. The production of stomach enzymes decreases with age. In turn, digestion, absorption and elimination is slowed. Undigested food and metabolic waste in the intestinal tract can build up creating a toxic environment in which beneficial organisms cannot thrive. As beneficial organisms die they are replaced by harmful organisms, which leads to changes in the intestinal wall and produces a condition known as leaky gut syndrome. As a result, many toxic chemicals are introduced into the bloodstream placing a burden on the liver, kidneys and other organs. Poor nutrition, low fiber intake, medications, and antibiotics can exacerbate the condition.
When the GI tract is not functioning properly, the entire body is affected. Poor digestion and absorption and bacterial imbalance lead to a host of chronic conditions such as:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome – It is estimated that 20% of the adult population has some symptoms of IBS. Pain and discomfort caused by bloating, cramping, constipation and diarrhea are common and do not cause permanent damage. Some symptoms can be controlled with stress management, dietary changes, supplementation or medications.
- Diverticulitis – This digestive disease typically occurs in the large intestine but can occur in the small intestine as well. With this condition, pouches form within the bowel wall causing abdominal pain and tenderness, cramps, bloating or constipation.
- Metabolic Syndrome (Leaky Gut) – Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine recently identified 26 species of bacteria in the human gut that appear to be linked to obesity and related complications. This study of obesity showed a link between inflammatory processes and low levels of specific beneficial organisms in the GI tract. It is estimated that this syndrome affects up to 25% of the U.S. population and prevalence increases with age.
- Dsybiosis – This condition refers to the imbalance of beneficial microbes in the digestive tract, mucus membranes or on the skin. Repeated or inappropriate use of antibiotics or excessive alcohol use can disturb this delicate balance.
- Dyspepsia – Also known simply as an upset stomach or indigestion, this functional disorder of the stomach creates symptoms of heartburn, abdominal pain, nausea or general discomfort.
- Gastritis – This inflammation of the stomach lining can produce symptoms of abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, vomiting and a full or burning feeling.
- Peptic ulcer – An open sore on the lining of the stomach that can be caused by digestive juices, a bacterial infection or overuse of over the counter anti-inflammatory medications.
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease – Known commonly as GERD, this occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus causing a burning sensation, regurgitation, non-cardiac chest pain or sore throat.
Because our bodies are so resilient, we often ignore symptoms of poor digestion and absorption. The GI tract is an intricate system that can be disrupted by diet, disease and emotional stress. You can improve the function of your system and return it to good health through dietary improvements such as consuming proper amounts of fiber, the elimination of junk foods and refined sugars and the addition of beneficial supplements.
Ultra Flora Balance by Metagenicshelps maintain a healthy balance of intestinal flora and is designed to provide intestinal support on multiple levels. As a nutraceutical, this product is formulated to complement dietary recommendations to promote gastrointestinal and immune health. This formula is designed to encourage growth of beneficial bacteria and support healthy immune function, intestinal integrity, and healthy digestive function. This formula also provides “prebiotic” food (FOS) to support growth of helpful bacteria.
B.P.P. by Thorne Research is a broad spectrum digestive support supplement. This product contains hydrochloric acid, pure pepsin and pancreatine which aid in overall digestion and malabsorption.
Gastrazyme by Biotics Research supplies specific nutrients known to support the healing of the GI tract which may become stressed due to normal, everyday factors.
UltraClear Sustain is a medical food designed to nutritionally support leaky gut syndrome. Enhanced with specific nutrients, including rice protein developed through a patented manufacturing process. Targeted ingredients nutritionally manage gastrointestinal health, including support for intestinal lining and immune function through a healthy bacterial balance. This product is formulated to nutritionally manage leaky gut syndrome by targeting the potential underlying causes with scientifically demonstrated nutrients that may be difficult to obtain through normal dietary means.
UltraMeal Medical Food by Metagenics is a medical food designed to nutritionally support the management of conditions associated with metabolic syndrome. In addition, this product provides good source of fiber to support gastrointestinal health.