Dietitian Laura Tilt Discusses the importance of good gut health
How’s your belly, bowels, stomach, tummy or gut? Whatever you call your digestive system, it’s not often we stop to think about how it’s working – that is until something feels a little off balance, and then we might stop to give it a rub or wonder what we’ve eaten to make us feel bloated.
Whilst it’s important for your gut to be on autopilot (you’d never get anything done if you had to co-ordinate the thousands of jobs it does), knowing how it works is very helpful when it comes to getting to grips with gut health.
So, let’s get back to basics and find out more about this clever organ.
In fact, if your Gut had a CV, it’d be an impressive one - the nine meter long organ is responsible for the breakdown, digestion and absorption of nutrients, coordinating the release of over 30 hormones that help break down the food you eat. It controls the movement of all the digestive tissues and the circulation of nutrients, not to mention defending against illness and removing unwanted waste.
Let’s look at these jobs (and the parts of the gut that are responsible for them!) in more detail.
Before food even arrives into your mouth, saliva is released from your salivary glands to coat the inside of your mouth and prepare for the breakdown of carbohydrates from foods such as bread, pasta and potatoes. Even the smell or sight of food can set off saliva release.
Once food enters the mouth (yum) your teeth break down food into smaller pieces and enzymes in your saliva begin to break down some of carbohydrates into smaller sugars.
As you swallow, food moves from your mouth into the oesophagus, aka the food pipe. The oesophagus is a muscular tube coated with special cells to protect it from crunchy sharp pieces of food. Mucus helps food move down the oesophagus as the muscles contract in waves to help send food along its journey to the stomach.
Once food enters your stomach, the digestive mission goes full steam ahead. As the stomach detects food, it releases stomach acid, which kills harmful bacteria, and provides the right conditions for digestive enzymes to work. The enzymes in your stomach work best at around an acidic pH of 2, so they become activated once stomach acid is released.
When it comes to strength, the stomach is not left on the sidelines – three layers of muscle work together to break food particles into a liquid, called chyme. As well as digesting food into a liquid, the stomach also acts as a reservoir for food, which means you can eat a large meal without needing to stop after a few mouthfuls.
Although it’s a little different for everyone, it typically takes around four hours for a meal to empty from the stomach completely, but it can take longer if the meal is high in fat or protein.
Food (now called chyme) leaves the stomach through a valve and enters the small intestine - a narrow tube with a double layer of muscle, stretching about 5-6 metres long, coiling round on itself like a string of sausages.It might be small (in width) but the small intestine is mighty, responsible for the absorption of nearly all nutrients – which is why it’s so long!
The small intestine is split into 3 parts – the duodenum (which neutralises stomach acid), the jejunum and the ileum, which is covered in finger like bumps called villi, which absorb nutrients. The villi have their own blood supply to whisk away nutrients into your blood stream.
The small intestine couldn’t do its work without the work of the liver, pancreas and gall bladder. The liver manufactures liquid called bile (stored in the gall bladder), which helps to break down fats. The pancreas releases enzymes that break down carbohydrates, proteins and fats into individual sugars, amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and fatty acids that can be absorbed.
By the time your meal reaches the large intestine (which is around 1.5 metres long), virtually all of the useful nutrients will have been absorbed. The walls of the large intestine of the large intestine are covered in glands that reabsorb water, making your stools solid. Immune tissues in the lining of the large intestine also provide protection against harmful bacteria and infections.
As well as forming your stool, the large intestine has a range of other important jobs, which it can only do with the help of… your gut bacteria.
Although bacteria live throughout the length of the gut, they are found in the greatest amounts in your large intestine, where they convert dietary fibre (the part of plant foods we don’t digest) into short-chain fatty acids. These fatty acids have anti-inflammatory benefits and help to stimulate immune function and prevent potentially harmful bacteria from taking hold.
The bacteria in your large intestine also manufacture a range of vitamins (clever right?) including vitamin K and biotin, a B vitamin. Assisting your large intestine in the maintenance of these helpful bacteria is what Symprove is all about.
The rectum is about 10cm long and forms the last part of the large intestine. The anus is the end of your digestive tract, and consists of 2 sphincters (internal and external). Stools move from the large intestine into the rectum once or twice a day. Sensors in your rectum send a message to your brain and let you know there are stools to be passed. If the brain says, yes ok! then both sphincters in the anus will relax and you will pass a stool.
Where do gut bacteria live? Bacteria can be found throughout the length of the gut but the number and type of bacteria vary according to the different parts of the digestive system, with most bacteria living in the large intestine. Scientists estimate there are between 10 - 103 bacteria in every ¼ of a teaspoon of stomach contents vs. as many as 1000 bacteria per gram in your large intestine!
Bowel the large and small intestine, also known as the large and small bowel
Colon another word for the large intestine or large bowel
Digestive system the organs which help with the process of digesting food, which include the mouth, stomach, small and large intestine.
Enzyme A substance that triggers a chemical reaction,like the breakdown of food.