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Digestive Health

Written by Adam Whitby

The digestive process means that the food we eat has quite an amazing journey through the body. From the mouth it travels down the thorax, abdomen and pelvis, ending at the rectum – a complete passage known as the alimentary tract or canal, which is about 25 feet (about 7.6 metres) in length. Along the way, food is partly broken down in the mouth with saliva, and continued in the stomach with acids, then through the small and large intestines, all of which help to convert the food into a state ready for the absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream.  This whole process is known as digestion, and its smooth operation is essential to your overall digestive health.

All the internal secretions that aid digestion such as saliva, stomach acid, gastric juices, pancreatic juices, enzymes and bile salts are produced in controlled quantities by the body, and their release is regulated according to the amount and types of food needing to be digested.

That process continues without us being aware of it, but we certainly know when things go wrong. Digestive disorders such a bloating account for around 70% of all health problems, and are the second most quoted reason given for days off work (after the common cold). In the more extreme cases, cancer of the colon or bowel is now second only to female breast cancer and male lung cancer.

You could describe the bowel as a creature of strict habit. It prefers regularity, consistency, and a slow but uninterrupted continuity of motion. So, what can we do to help our bodies maintain a healthy and efficient digestive system and keep problems like bloating, diarrhoea and constipation at bay?  In my mind there are 2 key steps to maintaining good digestive health:

1. What you eat 

2. When and how you eat 

What you eat. Eating the right food is a subject that has spawned thousands of books, programmes, websites and computer databases, as well as much family and relatives' advice, experiences and opinions. So where do we start? Well, the absolutely basic answers are these: eat fresh, wholesome and toxin-free food whenever possible, not too much meat, and include some raw food; eat food that contains what the body actually needs - proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. And keep an eye on levels of cholesterol, fat, sugar and salt!  Residual food can take a few days to pass through the intestines, and the whole digestive process can consume up to 80% of our energy reserves, so it's worth helping it along wherever we can as an insurance against potential problems.  You can help it by eating the right foods.  If you have a known intolerance to a certain food, go easy on it, even if you love cheese/chocolate/bread! (delete as appropriate).  You can help by supporting your body's levels of good bacteria too, and avoiding antibiotics unless absolutely necessary.  Another top tip is drinking plenty of water; this will help your body to flush out any toxins which can cause bloating when they hang around in the gut.

When and how you eat has a direct effect on the efficiency of the digestive process. Sitting at a table and relaxing while eating benefits digestion, but rushing a sandwich or snack at a desk or while travelling has the opposite effect. Eat regularly, sit down to your meals, and don't rush them.

External factors to consider for your digestive health include getting regular excercise, which aids metabolism, as well as where possible diminishing levels of stress and making sure you have a well balanced lifestyle.  Health and happiness are much more closely connected than people realise! 

About Adam Whitby

Adam has been involved in health and medicine for over thirty years, mostly reviewing clinical studies for general practitioners, writing patient information leaflets and producing medical video programmes.

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