Digestion is the means by which ingested food is broken down into a form that can be absorbed and assimilated by the tissues of the body. The purpose of digestion is to break large pieces of food down into molecules small enough to pass into the bloodstream and further into individual cells throughout the body to be utilized.
Structure and Function
The digestive system comprises the digestive tract which extends from the mouth to the anus, with all of its associated organs and glands. The digestive tract is made up of the following organs: mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum and anus, all of which contribute to the process of digestion. The lining found inside of these organs is called mucosa, which contains tiny glands that produce juices to help digest food. The digestive tract also contains a layer of smooth muscle that helps move food along the tract.
Once food is chewed and swallowed, it is mixed with digestive juices and moved through the tract from one organ to the next through muscle action called peristalsis. Once in the stomach, the food is mixed with digestive juices by the stomach’s muscle action and then emptied into the small intestine. The contents of the intestine are then mixed and pushed forward to allow further digestion. Finally, the digested nutrients are absorbed continuously through the intestinal walls and transported throughout the body. The waste products and undigested parts of the food are pushed into the colon, where they remain until expelled by a bowel movement.
Most of the absorption of nutrients occurs through the small intestine. Its mucosa contains many folds that are covered with tiny finger-like projections called villi. Microvilli are the microscopic projections which cover the villi and create a vast surface area through which nutrients can be easily absorbed. Some specialized cells allow absorbed materials to cross the mucosa into the blood, where they are carried off in the bloodstream to other parts of the body for storage or further chemical change. This process varies with each nutrient.
There is also a hormonal and nerve component found within the digestive system. The three major hormones that control the functions of this system are gastrin, secretin, and cholecystokinin (CCK). They are synthesized and released by cells in the mucosa of the stomach and small intestine and help facilitate the production of acids and juices. Extrinsic and intrinsic nerves also help control the action of the digestive system by releasing chemicals that actively participate in all of these processes. The digestive process involves a series of complex actions from the digestive organs, hormones and nerves to facilitate adequate digestion and nutrient absorption.
The digestive system is a complex one that can be disrupted by many factors including stress, diet, lifestyle or disease. Common digestive problems such as heartburn/GERD, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) can cause a wide variety of symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, gas, constipation, stomach pain and stomach cramps.
Learn more about Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
Many ingredients have been clinically shown to play a role in digestive health:
Probiotics play a critical role in achieving optimal digestive health by helping to maintain bacterial balance within the digestive tract. The digestive system naturally houses trillions of “good” bacteria that directly help the body digest, modify and convert the foods we eat, but disruptions to these populations of probiotics (good bacteria) are common. Probiotics must be kept at normal levels in order to overwhelm the other bacteria, which may begin to run rampant in the event the good bacteria levels decrease.
There are numerous strains of probiotics, all of which work to maintain optimal bacterial balance, promote bowel regularity and stomach comfort, improve gastrointestinal health and support the digestive system. Some important strains are Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus salivarus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium breve and Bifidobacterium infantis.
Fibersol-2® is a soluble fiber which has a positive impact on the elimination of wastes and colon cleansing. It also helps to maintain balanced bowels, support normal bowel regularity and fecal volume, and support healthy digestive function. Physiologically, the ingredient has been shown to promote normal bowel regularity and stool volume.
Fibersol-2 is also capable of increasing the amount of good bacteria (probiotics) within the large intestine due to the fact that most of this fiber is normally not metabolized by pancreatic enzymes and is transported to that specific area of the colon. Fibersol-2’s slow digestion helps maintain blood glucose levels.
Digestive enzymes are a key component in the digestive system and collectively support the breakdown of complex macromolecules into energy sources and promote the release of the nutrient content from the foods we eat. Ingredients such as DigeZyme® (which is a multi-enzyme complex composed mainly of amylases, proteases and lipases) sucrase and maltase supplement the gastrointestinal tract with enzymes to adequately support the body’s ability to digest food.
In addition to the physical discomfort caused by poor digestion, undigested food in the gastrointestinal tract serves as fuel to intestinal microbes, causing them to overpopulate and ferment. These fermenting microbes lower the pH of the colon and increase bacterial toxins in the gut. Supplementation with digestive enzymes provides the body with the additional support it needs for proper digestion. In addition to abdominal discomfort, there is also a connection between the function of the digestive system and the brain. Research suggests that promoting normal digestion may in turn support physical health.
Aloe Vera Juice has been used for centuries for numerous health benefits, including those for digestive health. The anti-inflammatory actions of aloe vera gel provide support for the proposal that it may have a therapeutic effect in inflammatory bowel disease. Oral aloe vera taken for 4 weeks produced a clinical response more often than placebo when used as treatment for ulcerative colitis and appeared to be safe. Additionally, certain components of aloe may increase hydrochloric acid levels which provide a buffering effect on the GI tract. It also helps ease gastrointestinal discomfort and promotes mucus production and healthy gut flora.