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Diving Into the 6 Digestive Processes
The smell of home cooking permeates the senses as you walk in the door. Fresh baked goods hit you like a ton of bricks causing you to salivate. When you smell or see food, you don’t think twice about your body’s response. These signals rev up your digestive system for food. With so much talk about gut health, it's helpful to know about the steps your body takes to process food.
Do all the sciency words about digestion intimidate you? Don't worry! We broke it down so you can understand how it all works. We’re going to get into the nitty-gritty of the 6 digestive processes.
Components of the Digestive System
The purpose of the digestive system is to break down food and nutrients your body needs to function and survive. Your mouth, stomach, esophagus, intestines, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and anus are all used to process food. This group of organs is part of the GI tract. These organs help your body metabolize food and turn it into the energy your cells need to keep you healthy. It also plays an important role in eliminating toxins from the body. Metabolism goes far beyond eating and digestion. It's responsible for breathing, circulation, hormone levels, body temperature, and growing/repairing cells.1
Ingestion is the first step in the digestive process. The body preps itself for food by producing saliva and stomach acid. Food is then broken down through chewing and swallowing. After, it makes its way into the GI tract. This step signals your stomach to produce acid.
2. Mechanical Digestion
Mechanical digestion “involves physically breaking down food substances into smaller particles to more efficiently undergo chemical digestion.” This process only happens at a physical level. Things like chewing and churning (when the stomach breaks it down even further into an acidic fluid called chyme) are parts of mechanical digestion. This helps digestive enzymes maximize their effectiveness.
3. Chemical Digestion
Unlike mechanical digestion which physically changes the state of food, chemical digestion breaks down... “complex food molecules into their chemical building blocks (for example, proteins into separate amino acids).” In this process, the body further breaks down the molecular structure of what you ate using digestive enzymes so you can absorb it.2 The mouth and stomach play a role in chemical digestion, but the small intestine is the star of the show.
Starting with the mouth, food makes its way down through the pharynx to the esophagus. Movements involved in this would be chewing, swallowing, and mixing, as the muscles in the stomach contract. Food moves through the digestive tract in a process called peristalsis.
Here is where your stomach and small intestines come into play. Absorption is a process in which your body absorbs the nutrients that have undergone chemical digestion. They move into the bloodstream so cells can transport them to the proper place in the body. “After being absorbed in the small intestine, nutrient molecules are transported to other parts of the body for storage or further chemical modification.”
This is the very last step of the digestive process. Nutrients that have not been absorbed into the bloodstream, are excreted during elimination.
It’s pretty common nowadays to have problems with digestion. Here are a few tips on keeping your GI tract happy and healthy.
You’re probably tired of hearing this but you can really never have enough water. Water cleanses the digestive system, helps break down food and makes passing stools easier. It also helps break down food for chewing and swallowing.
Fill up on fiber
Fiber helps you transport food through the GI tract and absorb water with efficiency. There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber helps absorb water, which helps soften your stools. It can also regulate bowel movements. Oats, flax seeds, carrots, pears, lentils, brussel sprouts, and broccoli are examples of soluble fiber. Insoluble fibers can be tough to digest but help bulk up stools, making elimination more pleasant. Foods include spinach, kale, cauliflower, and whole grains.
Keep it moving
Exercising can help boost your metabolism. Your bowel movements will flow smoothly and can help prevent constipation. A recent study showed that working out can improve the composition of your gut microbiome. This proves that you can actually change the amount of good and bad bacteria in your gut by working out alone!
Probiotics promote a healthy environment for the good bacteria in your gut to thrive. When the good bacteria is balanced in your gut, it can help with digestion and absorption. Probiotics have been linked to symptoms improving in people with GI issues like IBS, Crohn's disease, constipation, and bloating. You can consume foods high in natural probiotics like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut etc or take high quality supplements. Taking probiotics alone can help with gut health, but will not take the place of eating a healthy diet and exercising.
Avoid processed food
We get it, it’s hard not to go through the drive-thru after a long day, but you should try your best to avoid it. Processed food contains high levels of trans fat, preservatives, additives, sweeteners, sodium and gmo’s. All this causes digestion to slow down. You also have a tendency to overeat because they’re made to make you want more even after you’re full. When this happens gut inflammation may occur, and your gut becomes unbalanced.
Stay on schedule
When your eating schedule varies day to day, it confuses the body and changes the way the body digests food. Waiting until you're starving to eat can lead to overeating or quick eating, which can cause bloating, cramping, and indigestion. Give yourself time to sit down, be mindful about the food in front of you, and chew slowly to prevent digestion issues.
Your well-being as a whole can improve when you give attention to your gut. It’s best to maintain a consistent, healthy lifestyle to avoid digestive issues in the short term and diseases in the long term. After all, the gut is the center of all health and our immune system!
Lilith is originally from The Hudson Valley in New York. Growing up in this area made it easy to access the outdoors, and having a healthy, active lifestyle has always been natural to her. Her sense of adventure and curiosity has taken her around the globe, shaping her perspective on life and human connection.
After graduating from SUNY Purchase College in Westchester, NY, she moved to Brooklyn. From there, she got bit by the travel bug and spent three years traveling on and off all over the world, using NYC as her base. She backpacked solo through South America, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and parts of the Middle East. After returning from a year-long stint overseas, she moved to Aspen where she spent a winter season on the slopes.
Lilith sees the value of art and incorporates it into her life by doing or seeing at least one artistic thing a week. When she's not geeking out over health and wellness, she can be found checking out a new restaurant, seeing live music, and petting every dog she sees walk by.
She currently resides in beautiful, sunny Los Angeles.