Our digestion is a complex system, with many parts working in unison. For perspective, the digestive system will break down approximately 35 metric tons of food per person over an average lifespan.
It is amazing to think that the whole digestive tract is actually a long tunnel running straight through our body like a tunnel through a mountain. You might even say that everything that happens in your stomach and intestinal tract does not actually take place inside your body, but outside. Just as you are not a part of a mountain when you drive through a long tunnel, your food is not completely a part of your body as it makes its way through your digestive system.
Did you know that every person has, on average, 100 trillion bacteria on our skin and inside our body? That is ten times more bacteria than the total number of cells in your body. We could say that we are actually 90% bacteria and only 10% human. At the same time, we harbor 100 times more bacterial DNA than human DNA.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that so much of the immune system depends on the intestines, after all, some 100 trillion bacteria reside within the intestinal walls. For optimum health, your body must maintain a favorable balance between bacteria and the immune system. These two players are locked in a perpetual power struggle. If one party is weakened, the increased influence of the other party can have negative effects on our health.
Intestinal bacteria in your bowel can contribute to weight gain. We have discovered that certain bacteria strains can affect how much fat is absorbed and stored in the body. Two people hoping to lose weight who eat exactly the same food and engage in the same level of exercise might then see very different results. This can be due to several conditions within the body, but the health of our intestinal bacteria is certainly a contributing factor. These bacteria also appear to influence your appetite and food preferences, and therefore the nutritional quality of the food you put in your body.
What is the mechanism that controls your emotions and your mood? To a large extent, the parties responsible are hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and GABA. But a large portion of GABA and 80-90% of all serotonin is manufactured in the gut, and intestinal bacteria have an important role to play. Your body’s bacterial balance will affect how much tryptophan is absorbed by the intestine, which is then converted to serotonin. If you are feeling particularly run-down, worried, or depressed without another obvious cause, it could be largely due to problems in your intestines rather than your brain.
Every person produces, on average, 2 liters of gas per day. Gas is produced when the bacteria in our gut gets access to partially digested food particles which to begin to ferment and form gases including carbon dioxide, hydrogen, methane, or the infamous rotten egg odor of hydrogen sulphide. The problem with excess or foul-smelling flatulence is that it often signifies an imbalance in the intestinal bacteria and/or a poorly functioning digestive tract.
When we are in the womb, our bodies are completely sterile, free from intestinal bacteria. But as soon as we pass through the birth canal and enter the outside world, we are inoculated with our mother’s bacteria which rapidly colonizes our newborn bodies. But if we happen to be born via cesarean section, we are exposed to other bacteria, which could have a negative impact on our health. Breastfeeding is also an important way we acquire our good bacteria. We have seen a link between a lower variation of intestinal bacteria and higher incidence of allergies in children who are not breastfed.
We know that a proper balance of intestinal bacteria is important. But what can upset this balance? Much of the bacteria you need is acquired and colonizes your body throughout childhood. Children who are born through cesarean section or who receive breast milk substitutes instead of breast milk, generally have a less than optimal bacteria mix, and often suffer from allergies. Did you play in the dirt a lot as a child? In 1 gram of dirt, there is an average of 50 million bacteria, which helped to shape your internal bacterial flora.
Of course, all bacterial strains are not beneficial. Helicobacter pylori bacterium is one of the world’s most common causes of infections, afflicting 50% of the world’s population. Gastric ulcers represent 80% of infections caused by this bacterium which drills itself into the stomach lining creating inflammation. This link was proved by a determined scientist who was so desperate to convince a skeptical world of his findings, that he drank a test-tube filled with this bacterium and infected himself. He quickly developed a gastric ulcer which he then treated with antibiotics, winning the 2005 Nobel Prize for his research.
One of the most interesting case studies of the stomach’s function occurred when 19-year old Alexis St. Martin was accidentally shot in the stomach on June 6, 1822. Against all odds, he survived with a gaping hole in his stomach. After enduring months of failed operations, he had had enough, and refused further surgery. Alexis’ condition caught the interest of surgeon William Beaumont. The doctor could see directly into Alexis’ stomach, observing all of its activities and discovering its functions. Alexis remained in remarkably good health for the entirety of his 83 years, leading to many interesting discoveries about how the stomach works.
Mention gastric acid and most people will have a negative reaction, immediately thinking of excessive gastric acid as the cause of heartburn. But the opposite also holds true- too little gastric acid, can cause heartburn. So why is heartburn almost always treated with acid-reducing medicines? A balanced level of gastric acid is essential, both for proper digestive function and as protection against harmful bacteria and parasites in food. A shortage of gastric acid increases the risk that partially digested food can build up in the intestines, causing stomach discomfort and increasing the risk of food poisoning and infection.
Most of us know that it is important to drink enough water daily. But few of us realize that there may be negative effects when we drink water with a meal. Excess water can dilute and weaken peptic acid in the stomach, and many people use water to wash down food rather than chewing thoroughly. But chewing completely is important for proper digestion. Additionaly, overfilling with liquids stretches the stomach, which can increase the risk of acid reflux and heartburn.
A simple way to stimulate peptic acid and strengthen digestion is to drink apple cider vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice before meals. Drink 1-2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar or the juice of half a lemon in a little water 15 minutes before meals. This is especially helpful when eating heavier foods, high in fat or protein.
One of the most important but perhaps most neglected aspects of good digestion is chewing. Test yourself at the next meal and count how many times you usually chew before swallowing. Was it at least 30 times? Most of us chew between 10-20 times, and before the food is properly chewed, we wash it down with water. Doubly bad for the stomach! As for myself, I often chew between 60-70 times, but 30 is the minimum for good digestion. A lack of chewing increases the risk for gas, swelling, stomach upset, and other common stomach complaints.
What happens when you eat food upside down? Can food can go up? Yes, food travels down through the system not only due to gravity, but by being forced through using the muscles. You would therefore be able to eat while doing a handstand, although it may not be as enjoyable or comfortable.
Once digested, processed, and broken down, an average of 90-97% of the components of food are passed out through the bowels as feces. There is a great deal of fiber the body cannot break down and other food particles, but 1/3 of feces is dead and living bacteria. The shape, color, and consistency of feces can also tell us a lot about what is happening in our intestinal tract.
So, which poop type are you? Are you the poop top-cop? Or are you one of the poop criminals: the flasher who reveals everything you have eaten, the diarrhea that runs away, the dry harp, the buff bodybuilder, the Olympic swimmer who can’t be flushed, or the stinky smoker?
Do you know how to seat yourself on the toilet in order to empty the intestine in the best way? Today’s toilets are not properly designed to accommodate the way humans have defecated for thousands of years in nature. Primitive people typically squatted to defecate, which places the intestine in an optimal position to be emptied. But when we sit on a regular toilet, the intestines become angled, which makes it more difficult to empty the bowels and can contribute to discomfort and hemorrhoids.
Mental health, including our mind, our thoughts, and emotions, has a great impact on gastrointestinal disorders and proper elimination. Some people call the intestines our second brain. The intestine has its very own nervous system- the enteric nervous system. There are more nerve endings in the intestines than in the entire length of the spine and more neurotransmitters than in the brain. This nervous system can even work well even if communication is lost with the brain. At the same time, there is no doubt that there is a strong contact between the mind and intestinal tract. We have many expressions to reflect this, such as “butterflies in the stomach” or to go with your “gut feeling.”
The fact that a well-functioning stomach is important for our overall health has been known for a long time. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, noted 2500 years ago that “Death starts in the stomach.” I also emphasize the importance of intestinal health with my clients. When we start to balance the stomach, we often see other positive effects, such as increased energy, elevated mood, better sleep, and healthy weight loss.
Stomach growling is the layman’s term for this common phenomenon. Sounds produced in the stomach are heard both in the stomach and intestines when small air pockets are forced around. There are a variety of muscles squeezing and pushing food around the body. When you have a lot food in your stomach, it helps to dampen the sound, so you may not hear it. But when the stomach is empty, the muscles continue to work to force out any food remnants, and you will hear the characteristic growling sounds in the empty passageways.
I hope you learned something interesting in this article, or maybe something you can pass on to a colleague.
Question: was there anything in the article you did not know or that you found particularly interesting? Or maybe you have your own interesting facts about the stomach? Feel free to leave a comment below!