For today’s digestive system refresher, we’re heading back to Grade 9 biology class! We’ll discuss fundamental knowledge about your digestive system, the different steps of digestion, and how the entire process has a major impact on whole-body health. If you think about it, everything you eat is fuel for your body. So, are you filling up with premium or regular? And how does your digestive system benefit from that?
Mouth: chewing your food
It all begins with the mouth. At least, that’s where the digestive system starts! Once you take your first sip of morning coffee, or bite that tasty muffin, your digestive system is being put to work.
Starting with the mouth: this is where food and drinks enter your body. You put food in your mouth to chew, savor, and swallow. But what actually happens in this stage of the digestive system?
In order to help your body absorb the nutrients from the foods you eat, your mouth is designed to dissect material into more manageable bits. Saliva enters your mouth through salivary glands, acting as a lubricant for the food to travel through to the next step. Saliva helps break down food, converting it to what we call enzymes, making it easier to swallow.
This is why chewing your food is so important! If you don’t chew your food thoroughly, your saliva won’t be strong enough on its own to help the enzymes travel to the next destination. Not chewing your food properly can lead to digestive issues or even choking.
Esophagus: swallowing your food
Step number two in the digestive system is the esophagus. The esophagus is a long pipe that connects your mouth to your stomach - the next stop in the digestive tract.
Once you’ve chewed your food, and saliva has broken it down into enzymes, your muscles help push these enzymes through your esophagus. This process is known as peristalsis, which describes the tightening and relaxing of muscles. But we usually just refer to this as swallowing.
Think of your digestive system as a one-way road. The swallowing process is designed to transport food down into your stomach, which is why you can’t reverse swallow. Because of this, you could actually swallow properly while doing a handstand - though we don’t recommend it.
Stomach: breaking down and storing food
The next stop in your digestive system is your stomach. When most people think of their stomach, they picture it in the center of their body, near the belly button. However, your stomach is actually much higher up in your torso than you may realize. This is why gastritis or heartburn can feel like it’s coming from your chest!
The esophagus connects your mouth to your stomach. Once food has reached your stomach, it should mostly be a mushy substance. Thankfully, even if you didn’t chew your food properly, your stomach will act as a bodyguard before the food can go any further.
Your stomach contains powerful acids and enzymes designed to break down food materials, including meats and dense vegetables. This is a slow-moving process that takes time over multiple hours. For this reason, the stomach can hold quite a few meals worth of food, despite its small size. Your stomach is also able to store food for slow absorption, in case of emergencies.
Small Intestine: absorbing nutrients and utilizing enzymes
Once your food has been broken down for a third time, it makes its way into your small intestine. The small intestine is where the majority of nutrients are absorbed. That’s right; it takes four steps before your body can really start utilizing the food you’ve eaten!
The small intestine breaks down foods even further with additional enzymes released through the pancreas and liver. This is the last step before what’s left is turned to waste and evacuated from your body. That’s why this is one of the most important parts of your digestive system and often linked to the majority of digestive dysfunction.
This is also where you feel the majority of the digestion process. When you look at your body, the small intestine is located just behind the belly button. If you ever have a strange feeling there, now you know what it’s from!
Large Intestine, Colon, and Rectum: processing and evacuating waste
The last step in the digestive process is the large intestine - also known as the colon - and rectum. This is where any leftover food is converted into waste and evacuated from your body.
Your large intestine is made of 5-7 feet of muscular tubing that twists throughout your body. In order for food to travel from the small intestine to its final destination (rectum), it must ride a 36-hour long rollercoaster until there’s only waste left. This process can be faster or slower, depending on the foods you eat. This is also where many people struggle with substance intolerances, like lactose and gluten.
And that’s the end! Once your food departs on the colon rollercoaster, it makes a one-way trip to the rectum and (hopefully) your toilet!
Improve Digestion with Personalized Nutrition
After reading this refresher of the human digestive system, you may finally understand the term “you are what you eat”. That’s because our body is fueled entirely by what we feed it. But how can you improve your digestion with nutrition if each body has different needs?
The best way to improve your digestion and promote whole-body health is through personalized nutrition. It may sound complicated, but it’s actually quite simple. Each person’s body has specific dietary needs in order to perform optimally. Therefore, once you understand what your body needs, you’ve uncovered the key to a healthier life.
Personalized nutrition analyzes your unique genetic makeup and gives clear instructions on what your body needs to be healthy. A nutritional DNA analysis can determine which macronutrients (macros) your body utilizes best for energy and which micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) you need more of. A dietary DNA test can even identify what your tolerance level is to substances like lactose, gluten, caffeine, and alcohol.
In order to improve your health, you must first improve your digestion. We recommend taking a good look at the foods you put in your body to discover which are paving the path to whole-body health and which are acting as roadblocks.