Digestion 101

Digestion 101

Digestion is the process that your body uses to extract and absorb the nutrients from the food you eat. Healthy digestion allows your body to get all the nutritional value from what you eat and drink, and along with a healthy diet and lifestyle, is an important part of your overall wellbeing.

Digestion occurs as food moves through the length our gastrointestinal tract, from your mouth, right through to the loo.

How does digestion work?

Think of your digestive tract like a conveyor belt.

The digestion process starts with chewing. As your break your food into smaller pieces with your teeth and tongue, proteins called ‘enzymes’ contained in your saliva start breaking down carbohydrate components of food. This is why if you hold something like bread in your mouth before swallowing it, it starts to taste sweeter – digestion has begun!

Once you’ve chewed your food it moves down into the oesophagus (food pipe) when you swallow, and into the stomach. Here, the digestive process really gets going.

The stomach is a muscular sack which churns the food and breaks it down further into tiny pieces. During this churning, the food mixes with acid made by the lining of your stomach. The acid breaks down the protein in your food, which makes it more digestible when it moves into the small intestine. Your stomach acid also releases important nutrients from the food, like iron, making them ready for absorption.

Small amounts of this food mixture are then released into the small intestine. Here it comes into contact with enzymes from the pancreas, which further breakdown the food, and bile from the gallbladder, which makes fat in food more easily digestible. As the food moves through the small intestine, nutrients and vitamins are absorbed by the lining of the intestine, making the nutrition in your food available for your body to use.

At the last stop, the remaining fluids and electrolytes are absorbed in the large bowel (also called the colon) before what is left is passed out as poo.

What can you do to promote healthy digestion?

There are a number of things you can do to help keep your digestive system healthy.

High fibre foods

Fibre is the indigestible part of plant foods, and it’s an important part of healthy digestion. You might wonder why something that can’t be digested is useful for digestion. To put it simply, fibre helps all the other parts of the food you eat move through the digestive tract properly.

Different fibre sources have different benefits. Soluble fibres, like those found in oats and vegetables, help to hold fluids in the digestive tract, which keeps your poo soft and easy to pass. Insoluble fibre – the gritty fibre you can see more easily, like bran and grains – help to provide bulk to the food, making it move through the digestive tract more easily.

Both types of fibre also provide food for the good bacteria in your large bowel, which is good for your overall bowel health.

Drink plenty of water

Water plays an important role in digestion. Drinking enough water will help the food you eat move smoothly through the gastrointestinal system. Without enough water, digestion can slow, causing constipation.

Eat foods high in probiotics and prebiotics

Your digestive tract also houses a large number of bacteria. Good bacteria promote good digestion, and also help the immune system. Choosing foods that are naturally high in pro- and prebiotics will help make sure your gut bacteria is healthy.

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria found in yoghurts and fermented foods like sauerkraut, miso and kimchi. Prebiotics are the ‘food’ the good bacteria in your gut love to eat. The more prebiotics in your diet, the more good bacteria will thrive and grow. Prebiotics are found in green vegetables, legumes like baked beans, lentils and soy beans, oats and barley.

Make physical activity a daily habit

When you are active, it’s not just the muscles in your arms and legs that get moving, but also the muscles that line the digestive tract. Exercise – whether it’s planned or incidental – help food to move through your digestive tract smoothly.

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