The Digestion Process – How Digestion Works
What is digestion? And how does digestion work? If you’ve ever wondered what the definition of digestion is, you’re about the to learn the in’s and out’s of mechanical digestion and how you can optimize it.
Digestion is a very complex process and one that your body moves through multiple times per day. In fact, at every single moment, if chances are good, you are completing some element of digestion. If you eat multiple times per day, your body is constantly pushing food through the stomach, assimilating nutrients, and accumulating waste materials – all of which are part of the digestive process.
Many people put a great deal of focus towards eating the right foods, but if your digestion isn’t up to snuff, you may not actually be reaping the benefits that those foods bring.
Therefore, learning first what is digestion and then how to maximize it, is important.
To learn more about digestion, check out this video below, which will give you a primer on the process.
Now that you’ve figured out a bit more of what digestion is, let’s walk you through the steps of digestion and what you must know about each.
The First Step Your Mouth
The very first step of digestion takes place in your mouth. Chewing kick-starts the mechanical digestion process by breaking the food that you eat down into smaller bits, which then make it easier for the rest of the processes to be completed.
This is one place where you can immediately optimize digestion. Don’t rush through your meals, hardly chewing your food before swallowing. Aim to chew your food at least 20 times before swallowing.
The more you can break that food down, the better. In addition to improving digestion, doing so will also slow down the eating process, which can make it easier for you to recognize the satiety signals as they hit and prevent overeating from taking place.
As you chew, your body will produce saliva, which not only makes it easier for you to swallow your food down, but in addition to that, also provides enzymes that help break down the starches in the body. These enzymes are referred to as amylase.
As the food is swallowed, it then moves into your esophagus, which is essentially the transportation tube between the mouth and the stomach. This process occurs due to something called peristalsis, in which the smooth muscle tissues in your esophagus and intestines push the food down. They continually relax and contract in waves as the food moves lower towards the stomach.
As this process is automatic, there is not much you need to focus on doing here to improve digestion. By ensuring that you don’t swallow large volumes of food at once however, you can improve transport and ensure that food doesn’t get trapped in your esophagus or go down the wrong tube and into the trachea, which would then lead to you choking.
In The Stomach
Now that food has been through the esophagus, the next step in the process of mechanical digestion is for the stomach to begin breaking it down.
This is where digestive enzymes really come into play. A number of different enzymes as well as gastric juices (hydrochloric acid) begin working on these food particles, breaking them down into smaller bits and get them ready for absorption.
Certain foods may require more effort to break down, thus they sit in the stomach longer and can create the sensation of feeling full.
For instance, dietary fats are much slower to break down than simple sugars are, therefore they tend to suppress hunger longer than simple sugars would.
Likewise, when you have a higher level of bulk in the stomach, such as after a large stir-fry containing many vegetables, you’ll have the food pressing against the stomach walls, which also triggers the sensation of being full. This is one reason why eating more vegetables can assist with weight loss. Even though these vegetables are very low in calories and thus don’t contribute much energy to your diet, they do add bulk to the meal, therefore pushing against the stomach wall and causing you to feel full.
This food will sit in the stomach, breaking down into smaller pieces for about 3-4 hours. Want to improve your digestion process? You’ll want to ensure that your digestive enzymes are up to par. Most people do not possess as much digestive enzymes as they need for optimal digestion, therefore supplementing with a digestive enzyme product such as Masszymes can go a long way towards improving digestion.
If you fail to have the enzymes that you need, this could lead to the food not being broken down, causing bloating and stomach upset.
After the food is all broken down a liquid is then formed called chyme. Unfortunately, this is still not small enough to get into the bloodstream, so it needs to go through additional steps.
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As the chyme moves from the stomach, the liver and gallbladder come into play, producing additional chemicals to help further augment the breakdown process.
The liver produces bile, which is stored in the gallbladder and has the role of breaking down the fats that are in the foods that you’ve eaten into tiny droplets, which can then be used for energy or stored as body fat depending on the current situation going on in the body.
Now that the liver has taken care of the fats, it’s time to take care of the carbohydrates and proteins. This happens through the pancreas, which releases additional digestive juices and enzymes to help break down these two nutrients.
Now, one thing to note here is that if you are supplementing with a high quality digestive enzyme product as noted above, you won’t need your pancreas and liver to work as hard.
This eases the burden on them, keeping these organs in tip-top shape. If you don’t possess enough of the digestive enzymes you need, the food is not going to break down as it should in the stomach, thus this places excess strain on the liver and pancreas.
These two organs can become overworked and if it goes on long enough, could eventually become damaged.
This is why it cannot be stressed enough that using a product such as Masszymes is so important.
Additionally, studies suggest that supplementing with digestive enzymes may also help reduce the severity of food allergies as well, so anyone suffering from these will also want to take note of this benefit.
The Digestion Process In The Small Intestine
After the pancreas and liver have done their part, the food is now going to move into the small intestine. This is where the real bulk of the digestive process happens. The small intestine is a very long tube, measuring 18 feet long and is where food begins to pass, mixing with new chemicals so it gets to a point where it is finally fully digested and ready to be absorbed by the bloodstream.
It’s also in this small intestine where you’ll find natural good and healthy bacteria called probiotics. Also referred to as your ‘gut flora’, these bacteria further assist in the breakdown and digestion process, making sure that all the nutrients from the foods that you’ve consumed are made ready for the body to absorb at this point.
If you are lacking in these good bacteria, it can lead to digestive related issues such as gas, bloating, stomach and intestinal cramps, constipation as well as diarrhea. Most people are currently low in numbers due to consuming too many processed foods in their diet (which depletes the healthy bacteria stores), maintaining high stress levels on a day to day basis (which also depletes levels), as well as using antibiotics to treat illness, which will definitely wipe out the bad bacteria along with the good bacteria as well.
Supplementing with a high quality probiotic such as P3-OM can help bring your good bacteria numbers back up quickly, ensuring that you are optimizing the process of digestion.
Studies also show that probiotics may also play a role in ensuring that harmful molecules do not get absorbed into the bloodstream, reducing your risk of illness.
If you don’t supplement, you’ll be hard pressed to get your probiotic levels to where they should be as most people simply don’t eat foods rich in probiotics often enough.
After the food molecules are fully broken down, they are then absorbed into the bloodstream through tiny villi, which are finger like tubes that protrude from the walls of the small intestine.
Think of them like tiny suction tubes that suck up the molecules that the body is able to use for nutritional and energy purposes.
As this process happens automatically, once again, there isn’t a lot you need to focus on at this point to improve the digestive process.
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Digestion In The Large Intestine
Moving along, the next step in the digestive process is the large intestine. This is the part of digestion where anything the body cannot use is accumulated and made ready for excretion.
When you eat insoluble fiber for instance, that fiber is not absorbed in the body and as such, it’s going to pass through the large intestine and help add bulk to your stools.
Likewise, any toxins that you may have consumed that weren’t absorbed by the body will also be found in the large intestine as they are also mixed in with the other waste materials and turned into stool.
One of the main roles of the large intestine is to also absorb water, keeping your body hydrated. All the other steps in the process of digestion required water, but now, it’s no longer needed so your body soaks it back up to maintain proper water balance.
At this point it’s important to mention the fact that keeping yourself well hydrated is critical in optimizing the digestive process. If you aren’t drinking enough water, this could have a very large impact on your ability to digest food properly, so drink up. This said, avoid drinking too much liquid with your meals. The problem with taking in an over abundance of water, or even milk or other liquids with your meals is the fact that this will dilute the enzymes and other digestive juices in the stomach and small intestine, which will then make it harder for the digestion process to carry on.
So do stay hydrated, but do so between meals for optimized digestion.
The process of moving the waste materials through the large intestine is not a short one, taking up to 12 hours before the material is made ready for excretion. The waste will collect in an area called the rectum, which most people know as your ‘bum’, until it’s time to go to the bathroom and excrete it as stool.
Most people will have one bowel movement per day, excreting the waste they’ve taken in, while some people may have two or even three bowel movements per day if they are eating a lot of fiber and a high volume of food.
While more than two or three bowel movements may be cause for concern, keep in mind there is no set ‘regular’ amount you must have each day. If you are having fewer than one bowel movement a day however, this is cause for concern and may indicate you are either staying well hydrated enough (food is not moving through your digestive system quickly enough) or that you are not eating enough dietary fiber.
Very low fiber diets can lead to constipation and slow digestion rates, so slowly increasing your dietary fiber intake should help remedy that.
Finally, the last thing that you can do to help improve the process of digestion is relax. Heavy stress levels, which sadly, most of us lead on a day to day basis, can cause our digestion system to get all messed up, moving slower – or in some cases, faster than it should. This leads to stomach pain, cramps, indigestion, poor absorption of nutrients, and could potentially cause you risking complete malnutrition.
So calm down. Relax. Do something to combat stress. And whatever you do, do not rush through your meals. Eating should be a relaxed and positive experience for you. When it is, everything else will move along that much smoother.
Do you have any experiences with digestion you’d like to share? Have you ever had digestion related problems and if so, what did you do to get past those? We’d love to hear from you. Comment below.
Fioramonti, Jean, Vassilia Theodorou, and Lionel Bueno. “Probiotics: what are they? What are their effects on gut physiology?.” Best Practice & Research Clinical Gastroenterology 17.5 (2003): 711-724.
Oelgoetz, Anton W., Paul A. Oelgoetz, and Juanita Wittekind. “The treatment of food allergy and indigestion of pancreatic origin with pancreatic enzymes.”American Journal of Digestive Diseases 2.7 (1935): 422-426.