The digestive system starts when you put a bite of food in your mouth, where saliva immediately goes to work breaking down that tasty morsel into elements your body can use. Your mouth is loaded with bacteria, most of them harmless. Some are swallowed and killed by stomach acids, while others may proliferate and can cause problems like tooth decay and gum disease.
Whether it is a steak, an apple or a slice of pizza, the food we eat follows a particular path through the body. The digestive system, or gastrointestinal tract, that makes this possible consists of the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine and large intestine (or colon which includes the rectum). Your gastrointestinal tract performs two crucial functions: 1) breaking down food to provide nutrients for the body and 2) preventing harmful substances from being absorbed.
When you swallow, the food moves through your throat by a process called peristalsis. As food comes in contact with the gastrointestinal tract, muscles contract and in a wavelike manner, the food is propelled forward. The esophagus — or food pipe — transports food from the throat to the stomach. It is eighteen to twenty-five centimeters long and about seventeen millimeters in diameter. This hollow muscular tube has openings at both ends called the upper and lower esophageal sphincters.
When that chocolate bar or piece of steak enters your stomach, hydrochloric acid and other digestive enzymes break it into small particles. The stomach produces an average of two liters of acid daily. The sight, smell, and taste of food and the presence of food in the stomach stimulate the secretion of this acid by the parietal cells in the stomach.
After the food is pulverized in the stomach, it then is pushed into the small intestine, which is 20 feet long – about the length of two cars! The food particles are digested here in the small intestines, and all benefits and nutrients are absorbed here. Whatever is left after this process is complete is known as the waste, and it enters the colon (the 6-foot large intestine).
Water from this waste is absorbed in the colon, and the remainder, the fecal matter, is eliminated by bowel movements through the rectum and anus. The colon is lined with the mucosal barrier, also called the epithelial barrier. If this barrier is compromised, harmful organisms and toxins can enter the blood stream and cause problems.
Your overall health depends on the healthy functioning of your digestive system. Not only does it pull nutrients from food to nourish your body, but it helps protect against disease. The bacteria that populate the digestive tract play a major role in both of these functions.
So take care of your body and check back soon to learn more about the bacteria in your digestive system that helps protect against disease.
To your health,
Dr. Shekhar Challa
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