What You Need To know About Gastrointestinal Health

What You Need To know About Gastrointestinal Health

We often take our gut or gastrointestinal tract for granted. We eat without thought and wonder why we feel gassy, bloated or pain after a meal. Typical problems can include bloating, gastro-esophageal reflux disease, constipation, diarrhea, ulcers, inflammation of the gall bladder and inflammation of the colon. Actually, 20% of our population suffers from acid reflux or heartburn and 63M people suffer from constipation. This is also a costly problem for most people. Consumers spent $4.2B on OTC antidiarrheal medication, enemas, heartburn medication and laxatives.

If we understand all of the things our gut does for us, maybe we would take better care of our stomach pain, both the physical discomfort and in our pocket books. In simple terms, our GI tract serves 2 major and critical functions in our bodies – it takes the food we eat; turns it into vital nutrients we need to fuel our bodies and then releases toxins and our GI tract contains our microbiome or gut bacteria which is responsible for 70% of our immune function. In addition, there are other organs that contribute to the work of the GI tract but food does not pass through them: the liver, gallbladder and pancreas

How Does The Digestive Track Work

Digestion starts when we smell or think about food. There are enzymes in the saliva that begin the process of breaking down carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, breads, cereals and beans. Chewing is essential to break down food into very small pieces and mix it with saliva.

Small pieces of food are then swallowed and through muscular movements, called peristalsis in the esophagus, are pushed little by little into the stomach. Hydrochloric acid (HCl) has already begun to increase production in the stomach to prepare for digesting the coming food. The stomach is a muscular bag that mixes and churns the food. The HCl is responsible for killing any bacteria coming in with the food. It also begins breaking down protein such as meat, fish and chicken. Stomach acid coming back up into the esophagus will cause burning.

Food, now known as chyme, is released slowly into the small intestine. It is mixed with sodium bicarbonate produced by the pancreas to neutralize the acid coming from the stomach. Cells take in nourishment and release metabolic waste. This waste, along with dead cells and indigestible food, is then sent to the large intestine. The large intestine is responsible for holding and consolidating waste and reabsorbing fluids used in digestion back into the system to be used again.

Many things get in the way of this process, but the one thing that really impacts digestion is what state our nervous system is in when we eat. To properly take in our food, we need to be in a “rest and digest” state. This is called the parasympathetic nervous state where we are relaxed and the body can do its work to process the food we eat. In our society today, many of us don’t take the time to slow down and recover enough to move to the parasympathetic state. Many people don’t take vacations, work long hours and don’t really take time to stop work and eat. This causes a great deal of the gastrointestinal problems mentioned above.

What damages our gut?

  1. Antibiotics – These will kill many beneficial bugs in the gut and allow bad bugs to take over. This can damage our microbiome, our immune function and our health.

  2. Stress – Eating under stress without taking the time to relax can cause stomach upset and pain after eating

  3. Food – Fast food, packaged food, highly processed food – many of these foods have preservatives to extend their shelf life as well as other ingredients to make the food taste good. These types of foods can cause inflammation in our GI tract.

  4. Excessive hygiene – the use of antibacterial soaps and cleaners kill off good bugs and creates an environment for bad bugs to grow.

  5. Sugar – Sugar is inflammatory. It depressed our immune function as well as interferes with some liver functions.

What can we do to improve our GI health?

  1. Eat whole foods that you prepare at home. This will stimulate the digestive juices as the food is cooking.

  2. Chew food very well and put your fork down between bites.

  3. Eat slowly. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to get the message that you have eaten and for you to feel full. When you eat very fast, you will tend to eat more than you want or need.

  4. Make meal time a quiet time a pleasant, quiet time to eat and have good conversation with family or friends.

  5. Sit at a table to eat. No TV, no work, no other activity going on.

  6. Relax before you begin to eat. Take 3 to 5 slow deep breaths. This will shift you into a parasympathetic state so that you can actually digest your food.

  7. Stop eating when you feel full.

  8. Don’t drink anything 15 minutes, before, during or 15 minutes after your meal. This will dilute the digestive juices and delay digestion.

  9. Eat 3 meals a day as close to the same time each day as possible.

  10. Use a good probiotic daily, even if you eat a lot of fermented foods.

  11. Include foods considered to be prebiotic or foods that feed the bacteria.

  12. Eat different colored fruits and vegetables daily.

Incorporating these suggestions into your daily routine can reduce some or all of your digestive distress, make you feel better and improve your overall health.

Dr. Elaine, WHEN HEALTH discipline

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition.


  1. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/digestive-diseases

  2. Tortora and Derrickson: Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, 12th Ed; pps 921-967 Wiley 2009

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