Hello! Welcome to the Restorative Health Solutions blog!
Today, we are going to be taking you through the hierarchy of how the gastrointestinal tract, or gut, works. If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you’re having some symptoms associated with the gut or digestion. When the gut works well, typically you don’t think about how everything works and where the problem lies because you don’t have a symptom to provoke the thought or curiosity. However, when part(s) of the system break down or don’t function optimally, that’s when you start to wonder “why?” Let’s dive in and teach you the fundamentals of the gut!
When you say “gut”, what does that all include?
The terms “gastrointestinal tract”, “GI tract”, “digestive system”, “digestive tract” and “gut” all typically refer to the same thing. The gut is a group of organs that includes your mouth, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine and large intestine (includes the colon and rectum).
What does each part of the gut do? How does digestion work?
The best way to teach you digestion is to start from the top and work our way down. We call this the hierarchy of digestion.
When you’re hungry and think about eating something, you start to generate some saliva in the mouth in preparation of eating the food. Once you start chewing on the food, this will further increase the amount saliva and then trigger the production of hydrochloric acid (HCL) in the stomach. The food is eventually swallowed and travels from the mouth down the esophagus until it enters the stomach. There are parietal cells in the stomach that make the HCL. HCL is needed to help breakdown proteins in the diet.
Once HCL is produced, it then triggers digestive enzymes to be made and released from the pancreas. Digestive enzymes are necessary to breakdown starches, fibers, roughage, salads, fruits, veggies and basically carbohydrates or any kind. From there, bile is made and released in the liver and stored in the gallbladder. The gallbladder then contracts to squeeze out the bile into the gut. Bile is needed to breakdown and digest fats in the diet.
Once the food has been broken down into it’s simplest components, the nutrients are now absorbed in the small intestine. The molecules or nutrients are are absorbed go into the bloodstream so you can get the proper nutrition from your food, supplements, medications or whatever it is that is being absorbed. If the molecule is too big to pass through and be absorbed, it will continue on down the intestines until it is eliminated in the feces.
The large intestine provides proper electrolyte balance, hydration and is also known for housing a lot of the beneficial bacteria like probiotics.
What happens if part of the gut doesn’t function well? Would I have specific symptoms?
You just took a walk through the gut and hopefully now understand how the gut works when everything is functioning well. We have the same approach when we look at an organ(s) within the gut that aren’t working optimally.
Starting from the top, if salivary glands aren’t producing enough saliva, you made have a dry mouth a lot or constantly feel the need to drink water because your mouth is dry. Another symptom may be that you always have to chew a lot and have a tough time getting the food to go down without water. When the first step of producing saliva, chewing and swallowing is an issue, then it’s hard to get that downhill effect of the HCL, digestive enzymes and bile production and release into the gut to help you digest your food and absorb the nutrients from your food. It’s a chain reaction that happens.
Let’s hop down into the stomach. Assuming that saliva production, chewing and swallowing are good, we then get to the stomach. If the parietal cells in the stomach are not making enough HCL, this is called hypochlorhydria (HCL deficiency).
Common symptoms of hypochlorhydria (HCL deficiency) are:
- Difficulty digesting proteins and meats
- Acid reflux
- Sense of fullness during and after meals
- Feeling like food is stuck around the bottom of your sternum (breastbone)
- Burping/belching during and shortly after a meal
- Gas immediately following a meal
- Offensive breath
As you can see, having enough HCL can be critical for optimal digestion. Next, we move down from the stomach and talk about the pancreas. As mentioned above, your pancreas is responsible for making digestive enzymes. Digestive enzymes are produced to help you digest and break down all forms of carbohydrates. If your pancreas doesn’t produce enough digestive enzymes, it’s called pancreatic enzyme deficiency.
Common symptoms of pancreatic enzyme deficiency are:
- Difficulty digesting roughage, salads, fruits, veggies and fiber
- Indigestion and fullness that lasts 2-4 hours after eating
- Excessive passage of gas
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Frequent loss of appetite
- Stool undigested, foul-smelling, mucous-like, greasy and poorly formed
After the pancreas, the next step in the chain of events is the liver and gallbladder. The reason why we talk about both of them together with digestion is because the liver makes the bile and the gallbladder stores the bile. The liver and gallbladder have a lot of other functions, too, but we are solely focusing on digestion right now.
After HCL and the digestive enzymes have been produced, it’s now time for the liver to make the bile and have the gallbladder contract and release it into the gut. Again, the bile is a crucial component for digestion. When a problem goes wrong in this step, we find the bottleneck to more commonly be found with the gallbladder when it comes to digestion. This is referred to as gallbladder dysfunction or gallbladder insufficiency
Common symptoms with gallbladder dysfunction/gallbladder insufficiency are:
- High-fat or greasy foods cause distress
- Lower bowel gas and bloating several hours after eating
- Bitter metallic taste in mouth, especially in the morning
- Burp after taking fish oils and it tastes “fishy”
- History of gallbladder attacks or gallstones
- Yellowish cast to eyes
- Stool color alternates from clay colored to normal brown
After going over the gallbladder, the only two areas left to cover are the small and large intestine!
As you’ve already learned, the small intestine is where you absorb a lot of the nutrients from your food or get the benefits from your supplements, medications, homeopathic remedies, herbs, etc. This is assuming the small intestine is functioning optimally. What happens when it doesn’t function well and we don’t properly absorb everything the way we should? When poor absorption gets to be a significant issue, it’s referred to as malabsorption.
Common symptoms with poor absorption or malabsorption?
- Difficult time gaining OR losing weight
- Vitamin/Mineral deficiencies
- Dry, unhealthy hair and scalp
- Pale skin, dry skin and/or flaky skin
- Loss of muscle mass
Another extremely common issue that comes up when we talk about the small intestine and absorption is “Leaky Gut.” That is a big topic to cover and you will be getting educated on that topic next!
Now, we have traveled all the way down to the large intestine. The large intestine, including the colon and rectum, is another very important piece of digestion. When the large intestine isn’t providin the proper electrolyte balance, hydration and beneficial bacteria, we can have symptoms.
Common symptoms associated with the large intestine or colon:
- Feeling that bowels do not empty completely
- Lower abdominal pain relieved by passing stool or gas
- Constipation and/or diarrhea
- Coated tongue or “fuzzy” debris on tongue
- Pass large amounts of gas
- More than 3 bowel movements daily
- Use laxatives frequently
Well, I hope you are starting to learn a lot about the how digestion works and how it applies to you! Our goal is to educate you from beginning to end to ensure that you always understand the what, how and, most importantly, the why behind your personalized plan!
In our next blog, we will go in-depth about leaky gut, what causes leaky gut, what symptoms are associated with leaky gut and what can you do about it!!
What can Restorative Health Solutions do for you?
At Restorative Health Solutions, we strive to get to the root cause of the symptoms/condition and help patients reach their optimal health. We also guarantee to replace the one-size-fits-all approach with a personalized plan for YOU! If you or a loved one is having any digestive issues/symptoms or is interested in getting a thorough and complete work-up, we’d be happy to help. To schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation with one of the doctors, please call 952-479-7801 or CLICK HERE to fill out our contact form.