The digestive system spans 30 feet long, and involves numerous organs in the multi-faceted process of digestion. Responsible for breaking down food into small enough pieces for absorption of the nutrients (to convert to energy), the digestive system is a vital component of the human body. For this reason, it’s important we consciously keep our digestive system healthy, especially since approximately 40% of people have symptoms of digestive issues. Problems with the digestive system can result in difficulty absorbing the essential nutrients the body needs to properly function, as well as causing discomfort in the abdomen.
What’s the Digestive System?
The term digestive system is used to describe the set of organs responsible for digestion (breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, and getting rid of the waste). The key components of the digestive system are as follows: the gastrointestinal (GI) tract (comprising the oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and rectum), liver, pancreas and gallbladder. Food is moved through this system thanks to a process known as peristalsis, whereby the muscles in the walls of the GI tract contract in sequence to squeeze food through the passage. By the time the food moves to the end of the system, the majority of the useful nutrients have been absorbed by the body, leaving a stool that exits the body as a waste product.
Treating Common Digestive Conditions
We rely upon a balanced and healthy diet for the various elements of the digestive system to work properly and cohesively. Certain elements of our GI tract are sensitive to particular volumes or types of food and drink, just as food intolerances. Below are some common issues you might experience with your digestive system, and suggestions on how to manage the symptoms.
Also spelled diarrhea, this condition typically results in watery or loose stools, experienced numerous times per day. Most people will at some point in their lives experience diarrhoea (on average once per year as adults and twice per year as children), and it may go away on it’s own, but more chronic diarrhoea that lasts multiple weeks needs to be treated using medication.
Some common causes of diarrhoea include: eating bacteria or parasites in food or water that’s contaminated, catching a virus, having a food intolerance, or taking certain medications like antibiotics.
To treat diarrhoea, you should: take medication to harden the stool, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water, replenish your electrolytes, and eat starchy foods that are low in fibre such as potatoes.
Some people’s bodies react in an unfavourable way to certain foods. These can range from sensitivities meaning your body just doesn’t agree with that food, to intolerances where your body can’t digest that food type, all the way to allergies whereby your body goes into defence mode as your immune system misidentifies the food as a foreign invader. Those with allergies should stay clear from ever eating that food eg. peanut allergy, as a severe allergic reaction can be, in some cases, fatal. Those with sensitivities or intolerances can eat the food type in moderation, but might want to supplement their diet with enzymes that are able to break down that food better eg. For lactose, you can still eat foods with lactose in such as cheese, but you will benefit from taking a Lactase supplement.
Common symptoms of food intolerances include: bloating, diarrhoea, cramping, constipation or nausea.
If you have a food intolerance, you should consume that food type sparingly, finding alternatives if possible. Some live cultures in food might help to digest these problem foods, but taking enzyme supplements is the most efficient way of being able to digest the foods you want to eat with minimal symptoms.
The stomach lining is able to withstand the powerful acid used to break down our food, but the oesophagus is not. This is not usually a problem unless the lower oesophageal sphincter fails to tighten properly, resulting in stomach acid flowing upwards. This can cause a burning sensation in the chest, and an unpleasant taste in the mouth.
To prevent getting acid reflux, try to eat your food slower, stay standing after eating, and avoid eating foods that are high in fat or are spicy as this can trigger symptoms.
To treat acid reflux, you should take over the counter medication like Gaviscon. For more serious cases of acid reflux like GERD, proton pump inhibitors may be prescribed by your doctor or pharmacist.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a very common digestive condition that can cause cramps and bloating, and cause fluctuations in stool hardness. Whilst the causes are unknown, the issue can be managed with appropriate treatment and lifestyle choices.
To treat IBS, try to identify which foods trigger your bowels to play up, and avoid consuming these. Alcohol, caffeine and legumes are common IBS triggers. Over-the-counter IBS treatments can alleviate abdominal symptoms, whilst probiotic supplements can help strengthen your stomach’s microbiome.
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