What is the gastrointestinal system and how does it work?

on Dec 08, 2016

Gastrointestinal (GI) system is a system of organs that help the body process food. Everything from chewing to eventual excretion of waste is dependent on the GI system’s proper functionality. The physical movement of food is controlled by muscular contractions, which result in chewing, swallowing, allowing food into the stomach and its’ mixing with digestive juices.

Speaking of digestive juices brings us to the chemical component of the GI system’s functionality — digestion. Digestive juices themselves are varied, depending on where in the GI system they are produced and used. Saliva, stomach acid, pancreatic and bile juices are some of the examples of liquids our body produces to process food.

You can already tell it is a multi-level, complicated process to consume your dinner but in reality, it is even more convoluted. In each step of the GI’s way, with the excretion of different digestive juices, a different nutrient is being processed and used by our bodies for a variety of functions. For instance, saliva is in charge of handling starches, whereas proteins, the building blocks of the body, are subject to stomach acid’s work. The small intestine handles starches, proteins and carbohydrates, whereas liver is in charge of processing fats. The small intestine is responsible for extracting most useful components out of our food and ensuring they get delivered everywhere else in the body for storage, processing and eventual use.

The GI process is controlled by hormones and the nervous system. The hormones signal to the organs involved (including the brain) that it is time to eat and so they provoke digestive juice production. The nervous system consists of extrinsic and intrinsic components and does anything from contracting GI walls to releasing various digestive fluids, as needed. On a more pleasant note butterflies in your stomach or choking up with emotion are examples of how your digestive system processes emotions, using the many neurons, neurotransmitters and proteins, located in its' lining. Like the brain, your GI contains serotonin, dopamine and nitric oxide — very known components of the central nervous system. In fact, the GI has more neurotransmitters than the brain, so complex is our gut. It is fair to say that evolution allowed us to come into this world with two brains, not one, which makes GI an important focal point in our bodies.

Why is GI health important?

The gastrointestinal system is complicated, to say the least. It is also crucial for our bodies, as the GI functions ensure we get nutrients for energy, growth, cell repair and more. Sugars, amino acids, vitamins and minerals all enter the blood stream thanks to this process. Waste is eliminated from the body thanks to the GI functions, as well. In a nutshell, we would not function on a day-to-day basis, should our GI system fail us.

Apart from the obvious need for fuel that the GI system satisfies, the body relies on its wellbeing to cure a number of other ailments. GI failure means so much more than low energy levels and heartburn. Failures in the GI environment can be linked to allergies, autoimmune conditions, acne, chronic fatigue, dementia, autism, cancer, emotional disorders, eczema, psoriasis and arthritis.

What could go wrong?

The GI environment is one that relies on bacteria, which is naturally present in a healthy body. The balance of these components is a fragile one, since there are over 500 species of them out there. They trigger the above mentioned hormones, help us digest our food and ensure we get all our vitamins and nutritional components, as normal. Any breakdown in their levels is bound to create an unpleasant situation.

As any important organ in our body, the GI operates its own defense system. There is an inherent risk that this defense system might break down, making us allergic to foods we need for survival and wellbeing. The immune system will respond to the false alarm by the GI defenses and cause chaos throughout our bodies, sparking an outbreak of inflammation.

And since the GI tract contains neurotransmitters, it can suffer in ways any other organ can. Disruptions in the way neurotransmitters operate can cause far flung effects on our bodies overall.

Failure to dispose of waste on time can cause toxic shock. Metabolism causes a dump of waste by the liver and if this is not expelled in a timely manner, we can literally be poisoned from the inside.

Our GI is tasked with a very difficult process of digestion, which is complex even without any disruptions. Specifically, digestion is subject to the functions of 6 different organs, which are: mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas and liver. This is completed by producing the various digestive juices at each stage of the way and these juices are responsible for the breakdown of specific food particles:

  • saliva for starches
  • stomach acid for protein
  • small intestine digestive juice for starches, proteins and carbohydrates
  • pancreatic juices for fat, protein and starch
  • bile acid for fats.

Any error in the system is bound to have dire consequences. 

How do we fix it?

The answer is genius in its simplicity: to have a healthy digestive system, we must eat right. In practice this means several things:

Consuming predominantly plant-based foods will go a long way to keep your GI happy. Leafy green vegetables, fiber-rich products like legumes, seeds and whole grains are all good options. Trying to ensure you consume enough unprocessed, largely raw produce is always the way to be healthy and GI is no exception.

Sugar is another silent threat, causing inflammation in the body. It actually provokes growth of unhealthy bacteria, especially yeasts like candida, damaging your GI among other things. Cut out refined sugars from your diet sooner than later.

Fat, on the other hand is not the enemy you think it is. Healthy fats, such as Omega-3, whether in supplement or in food (enriched eggs, salmon, etc.) is extremely beneficial to keep inflammation at bay and your GI running smoothly. Add these nutrients into your daily diet as soon as possible.

Probiotic supplements are needed to ensure that the good bacteria in your GI tract thrive. We have all heard terms like bifidobacterium but there are far more of these healthy organisms, lining our GI. To keep their balance healthy, supplements are typically prescribed.

Such nutrients can also be part of a bigger nutritional supplement, like the multi-dimensional ProLifeStream formula. Zinc and glutamine are some additional ingredients that may be part of a well formulated product that aims to support your gastrointestinal health, as both serve to keep the GI lining functioning well.

Certain medications actually block the production of digestive juices, so keep an eye out for them. Acid blockers, anti-inflammatories, steroids and antibiotics can all contribute to an unhealthy GI. Eliminating them can indicate whether they are the cause of the problem in the first place.

Detox is yet another good way to heal our GI. Mercury is amongst top offenders of the digestive system, so keeping our bodies free of additional toxins is key.

Along with our toxic modern reality, we live in the world run by stress. Managing our stress levels is key to overall wellbeing. Regular and gentle exercise is typically advised for these purposes.

Last but not least, keeping an eye on food intolerances is crucial. Some food allergies can be identified through tests but others are virtually undetectable. Try an elimination diet for several weeks or months to see if gluten, dairy or any other typical offenders are causing you to have an unhealthy GI system.

As you can see, GI health is not rocket science and yet is detrimental to our wellbeing in more ways than one.

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