Your Amazing Gastrointestinal Tract

Almost all of us take our gastrointestinal tracts for granted. We shouldn t. Starting at our mouths and continuing all the way to our nether ends, our GI tracts are amazing, essential systems, that take the food we eat and convert it into energy that our bodies use.

The process begins in your mouth with your teeth and tongue chewing food and breaking it down into smaller pieces that are easier for the rest of the GI tract to handle. Then comes what is called the esophagus, the passageway from the mouth to the stomach.

Actual digestion begins in the stomach where stomach acids and gastric digestive enzymes begin breaking down the food. Partially digested food then moves to the small intestine, where digestion is completed. The small intestine is lined with some 7,000 tiny projections called villi that absorb nutrients from the digested food.

Any remaining food material passes to the large intestine where water is absorbed and finally where the undigested remains are excreted from the body.

The whole process including the descent through the 15 to 30 feet of GI tract, based on your size takes anywhere from 24 to 72 hours depending upon the food you eat and the health of your GI tract.

Each part of the GI tract is joined to the next part with a stretchy band of muscle called a sphincter which prevents back flow, and the entire system (with the exception of chewing) is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, so everything happens automatically and you don t need to consciously think about digestion.

When you eat something that doesn t agree with you, or when you eat too much, indigestion can occur. Antacids reduce the stomach s acid content and will stop your symptoms. However, they can also reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics like tetracycline and ciprofloxacin. Make sure you take your antacid one to two hours before or after your antibiotic, and if you take medication regularly check with your pharmacist for potential interactions before you take an antacid.

One group of stomach remedies contains bismuth subsalicylate and you may not realize that this ingredient is a type of salicylate. If you are taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for conditions like arthritis, or if you are taking a daily ASA tablet for heart health, the addition of salicylate from the stomach remedy may lead to adverse effects. As well, if you are have a sensitive stomach, a salicylate allergy, or even a blood coagulation problem, the added salicylate can complicate your health.

Proton pump inhibitors or PPIs reduce acid production in the stomach and are often used for indigestion and conditions like reflux disease. However, in reducing the stomach s acid level, they can reduce the absorption of minerals like calcium and magnesium. With long-term use, your risk for conditions like osteoporosis can actually increase.

It is a myth that you need a bowel movement each and every day. However you should be regular, whatever your regular may be. Unfortunately, some people over-use laxatives, especially stimulant ones, in order to achieve what they perceive as regular bowel habits. Fluid and mineral imbalances, dehydration, and even dependency on the laxative can result. A better approach is to eat a diet high in fibre and fluids, and if you need a laxative choose a bulk-forming or stool-softening one.

Your GI tract is indeed amazing and you want to keep it that way. You may feel uncomfortable talking about symptoms that you may experience. An odd case of diarrhea or constipation is usually normal, but if your bowel habits have changed, or if you experience pain, blood in your stool, or an unexplained weight loss, get it checked. And, if you are asked to do a fecal occult blood test or FOBT, get it done. These tests are usually recommended after age 50 and they are able to spot minute amounts of blood that may indicate polyps or colon cancer. After all you want to take care of your GI tract, not take it for granted.

Marie Berry is a lawyer/pharmacist interested in health care and education.


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