Chances are you probably don’t give digestion much thought. You eat and the food gets digested, right? Although it may seem like a simple process, digestion is actually a sophisticated system involving a lengthy series of steps.
A Brief Overview
In order to convert the food you eat into nourishment and energy, your body has to transform it into small molecules of nutrients that can be absorbed into your blood and transported to your cells. This process is called digestion, and involves your stomach, small and large intestines—as well as organs such as the pancreas and liver.
First, You Chew
The first step in breaking down food is chewing. This signals your body to begin the chain of events that will convert it to energy. Even before you swallow, the taste of whatever you’re eating triggers the stomach to produce acid. As you chew, the enzymes in your saliva mix with food to make chewing easier and begin to break down starches.
Next Stop, The Esophagus
Within a few seconds, food makes its way through your esophagus, the portion of the alimentary canal connecting your mouth and stomach. As you swallow, esophageal muscles work to pass food or drink from your mouth into your stomach. At times, stomach acids can escape into the esophagus, causing acid reflux. But if reflux occurs too often, in a condition called GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), digestion may regularly cause discomfort.
Into the Stomach
Think of your stomach as a “storage container” where the gastric phase of digestion occurs. During this process, which can take anywhere from a half hour to several hours depending on the amount and type of food you eat, stomach acids break down food proteins into small particles called peptides. Meanwhile, stomach acid normally kills most bacteria you may have ingested. Hypochlorhydria—low stomach acid—can inhibit the digestion and absorption of minerals and certain vitamins such as Vitamin B12. It also prevents proteins from being properly digested. Hypochlorhydria can result from aging, since the production of stomach acid declines over time, and some people don’t produce enough pancreatic enzymes—which may also inhibit digestion.
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Through the Intestines
An important part of the digestive process occurs in your small intestine, also known as the small bowel. This 20- to 25-foot tube houses millions of microscopic, finger-like projections called villi. As food passes through, the villi absorb nutrients and send them into your bloodstream so they can be transported throughout the cells of your body. After it reaches the end of the small intestine, the leftover food passes to the large intestine.
Nutrients and Waste
Although the large intestine (colon, or bowel) is only five feet long, it’s considered larger because of its wider diameter. This is where undigested food—mostly fiber—remains after nutrients have been removed by the small intestine. This is the longest phase of digestion and can take up to 72 hours. During this part of the digestive process, the large intestine absorbs additional water and minerals, while fermenting some of the leftover fiber. The remainder moves through to the rectum, where it’s expelled as waste. Digestive Advantage® has a unique ability to survive harsh stomach acid and deliver 10x more “good” bacteria to your digestive tract vs. the leading probiotic yogurt. ‡ Digestive Advantage® helps defend against both occasional constipation and diarrhea.*
What Part Does the Pancreas Play?
Located just below the stomach, the pancreas produces most of the enzymes that break down proteins, fats and starches. These enzymes are then delivered to the small intestine through the pancreatic duct. The pancreas, a small glandular organ about six inches long, also secretes several quarts of bicarbonate fluid to neutralize excess stomach acid so the enzymes can function. In addition, islet cells secrete insulin and glucagon that regulate your blood sugar levels.
The Role of the Liver
Like the pancreas, the liver plays an essential part in digesting, absorbing and processing food even though it’s not actually part of the digestive tract. That’s because most of the nutrients absorbed from the foods you eat pass through your liver before they reach the rest of your body. As they do, the liver filters unwanted compounds out of your bloodstream. With a weight of about three pounds, the liver is your body’s largest glandular organ and is positioned on the right side of your abdominal cavity. Just below it sits the gallbladder, a small pouch that stores a digestive juice produced by the liver called bile. After a meal, your gallbladder squeezes the bile into a series of tubes called ducts that carry it to your small intestine to help digest fats.
An Amazing Process
When you think about it, it takes a lot of work for your body to turn the foods you eat into the nutrition and energy you need!