Your Amazing Digestive System

When you put a bite of food into your mouth, chew and swallow, you rarely think about what happens next. After all, when you’re finished swallowing, you’re finished with any conscious or intentional involvement to get nutrients into your body. Your digestive system, however, particularly your intestines, is getting ready to seriously flex its muscles. 

After that swallow, your food, now a saliva coated mush, heads down your esophagus, a muscular tube, and into your stomach. Your stomach is a pear-shaped organ, about 12” by 6” in a healthy and fit adult. With the help of billions of bacteria and muscular walls that secrete acid and enzymes, your stomach mixes and grinds your food into a liquid paste or sludge over the course of about 4 to 6 hours. 

That sludge is what enters your small intestine, where the serious work of nourishing your body takes place. About 22 feet long and about as big around as your middle finger, your small intestine mixes that sludge with bile, enzymes, mucus and more bacteria as muscular action pushes it through. Your small intestine is folded back and forth along itself, loaded with villi, tiny projections that help catch and absorbs the nutrients in your food. The small intestines work wonders in a short amount of time; your food will pass through those 22 feet in just 2 to 4 hours and 95% of the carbohydrates, proteins, and nutrients in that bite of food will have been absorbed. Now, the paste that went into your small intestine is very watery waste. 

This watery waste now enters 5-6 feet of large intestine, also known as your colon. Digestion slows down here, as your body uses even more bacteria and muscular contractions to absorb the water and remaining nutrients in the waste to form stool. Your colon stores this stool in the sigmoid region until nerve endings signal your brain that it’s time for a mass evacuation, or a bowel movement via your rectum. It can take between 33 and 47 hours for the watery waste to pass through the colon and be eliminated. 

All this muscular action is called peristalsis. These muscle contractions are automatic and responsible for moving your food through your digestive system from the moment after you consciously swallow to when you eliminate the wastes from that food about 50 - 55 hours later. And while we’d like to say this all happens without you moving a muscle, in reality it’s all about your body moving muscles all by itself. 

Your digestive system wouldn’t be complete without mention of your pancreas, liver and gallbladder, helping to secrete enzymes, create and store bile and purify your blood. 

If it seems like overkill to have nearly 31 feet of digestive organs, it’s absolutely necessary for your good health. Every inch of intestine is vital to the proper absorption of nutrients and water. In fact, people who’ve had part of their small intestines removed can experience a host of problems such as anemia, bruising, gallstones, kidney stones, osteoporosis and the need to avoid certain foods. 

As you read this, as you sleep at night, as you work during the day, some part of your digestive system is working to nourish your body. Treat your digestive system well. Eat a healthy diet with lots of vegetables and fruits, lean meats and good fats. You’ll find the better you treat your digestive system, the better it will function for you. 

Questions about your digestive system? Just click "make an appointment" or call 773-238-1126 to make an appointment with Dr. Gaston, your board certified gastroenterologist. 

Metro Gastroenterology Consultants

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