Let’s Take A Ride (Part 2)

Roller Coaster

 

The more I learn about the GI tract, the more I see how it is the center of our health and healing. This is the second post in series about the GI tract, it’s parts, how it works, what can go wrong, and how to keep it healthy. In last week’s blog post, we started on a tour or “ride” of the digestive tract. Here’s a link to Part 1.

Part 2

“We’ve now entered the small intestine. Lots to look at here. The average small intestine is about 22 feet long! Yes, 22 feet! You see that hole up there? Yes, up in the top above your head? That’s where digestive enzymes from the pancreas and the gall bladder come in to continue digesting, or breaking down, the food from the stomach. The gallbladder holds bile which helps digest fats. The gallbladder stores the bile until your body detects that there’s fat in the small intestine. Then, the gallbladder contracts and releases the bile to break down the fats. You don’t have your gallbladder? Then, there’s nowhere to store the bile. It drips directly from the pancreas into the small intestine all the time. If you eat a fatty meal and have diarrhea soon after it’s because your body can’t handle that much fat because your gallbladder is gone. This first part of the small intestine is called the duodenum. You’ll notice on the sides there’s some additional fluid coming in. That neutralizes the stomach acid so that it doesn’t damage the small intestine.”

“Moving along now, we enter the next section of the small intestine – the jejunum. You see all those folds there? Those are called villi. On the villi are more small folds on the folds called microvilli. The villi and microvilli increase the surface area of the small intestine. Remember how we talked about increasing the surface area of the food by chewing and digestion to allow the digestive enzymes to break the food down into smaller parts? In your small intestine we want a lot of surface area to be able to absorb the nutrients from the food. If you flattened-out all the villi and microvilli of your small intestine, you could cover about two tennis courts. That’s a lot of surface area! It’s in this part of the small intestine that most of the absorption of sugars, amino acids from proteins, and fats happen. Also, this is where a lot of your immune system resides. About 70% of your immune system is in this part of your small intestine. Why? Since you’re absorbing things here – this is where the parts from the food pass into your body – we want to let what we need in and keep things we don’t need or that may be harmful out. The immune cells here act like bouncers at a night club. They let the good things in and keep the bad things out. The next section of your small intestine, the part we are now entering is the ileum. You can see we still have the folds. In this section we absorb vitamins and bile salts that are recycled into more bile in the pancreas. Ahead, you’ll see we’re reaching another sphincter – the ileocecal valve. This valve is between the small and large intestines. We’ll stop here for a minute and let you take a look back.”

“Ready to move on? Here we go into the large intestine. The average large intestine is about 5 feet long. Our microbiome lives in our large intestine. A healthy microbiome weighs about 5 pounds. These little microbes do a lot to help us out. They digest the fiber we’ve been eating and produce some vitamins and other things our body and digestive tract need to stay healthy. So far, they’ve identified about 10,000 species of microbes in a healthy microbiome. You can see all the microbes along the walls of the large intestine here. If this person had taken antibiotics, there’d be hardly any microbes here because the antibiotics often kill off most or all of the microbes. Then, we have to repopulate them through supplements and food. Our large intestine absorbs water and all the good things that the microbes produce through their digestion. Don’t be afraid of the microbes. They’re really friendly. See? That one is waving to you!”

“Finally, we find ourselves in the rectum and anus. This is where the waste products are stored until you are ready to go to the bathroom. And, out we pass and we’re back safely into the ride loading area. Your cabin cover is unlocked. Just lift on that handle and it will lift up. Same for your safety bar. Please stand and exit to your left. I hope you enjoyed this tour of your GI tract! We’ve got some great snacks out in the lobby for you to enjoy. See you next time!”

Now that you’ve toured your GI tract, I hope you have a better understanding of the various parts and functions. In next week’s post, we’ll talk about some things that can go wrong in your GI tract.


I’ve got something for you if you have an unhappy gut. One of the best ways to get a happy gut is to track your food and symptoms. I’ve created a Symptom Log for Digestive Wellness based on my years with IBS and working with clients with digestive issues. I also created a series of videos to go along with the log to help you learn how to use it, figure out what may be triggering your symptoms, and other resources to get a happy and healthy gut. If you want the Symptom Log and other goodies, you can sign up to get it here.

Let’s Take A Ride (Part 1)

Roller Coaster

The more I learn about the GI tract, the more I see how it is the center of our health and healing. The next few blog posts are a series about the GI tract, it’s parts, how it works, what can go wrong, and how to keep it healthy. Enjoy!

Imagine you’re at an amusement park. There’s a new ride that just opened. You’ve been in line for a while and are finally at the front of the line. Over the loudspeakers you hear:

“Welcome ladies and gentlemen! Please take a seat in one of the cabins. Once you are seated, pull the safety bar down. Be sure that bar is locked securely. Now, reach up, grab the handle you see up there, and pull down the cover for your cabin. Be sure the cover is also locked securely. The cover is air-tight. We don’t want anything to get in to your cabin. Fresh air will circulate constantly. As you can see, the whole cabin you are sitting in is clear, except for your chair and the safety bar. We want you to be able to see everything that’s around you during the ride. You’ll be able to hear my voice through the speaker in your cabin as you ride this ride. Are you ready to go on the ride? Yes? OK. Let’s GO!”

{Your cabin shoots into a giant, human mouth.}

“Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is a tour of your GI tract. Your gastro-intestinal tract. Your gut. Also known as the digestive system. During this ride, you’re going to learn about the parts of your GI tract, and how they work. Did you know your whole GI Tract is about 24 to 30 feet long?”

“Did you know that your digestive tract is like your skin? It interacts with the outside world constantly. People say that the skin is the largest organ in the body. Actually, I believe, the GI tract is the largest organ in the body if you want to go by surface area. Think about it. The GI tract is like a hole through a very long bead. On a necklace, the chain passes through the bead. In your body, all of the food you eat, fluids you drink, and pills you take go in your mouth, get processed and come out the other end. All those things from the outside world go through your GI tract, get squished, kneaded, exposed to acids and digestive enzymes, what your body needs extracted, and the waste passed back out. Pretty amazing, right? Once you know the parts of your GI tract, you can start to understand how and why things may go wrong and get some ideas about how to keep it, and you, healthy.”

“Starting in the mouth, you’ll see we’ve got teeth and a tongue. Did you know that you have taste buds all over your mouth, not just your tongue? Digestion, which is the process of breaking down the food, starts in your mouth. You start digesting your food by chewing. Your mouth releases digestive enzymes – in saliva – to also start breaking down the food. Hold on to your safety bar. It’s going to get a little rough as the mouth starts chewing. Don’t worry about those digestive enzymes you’re floating in. Your cabin is totally water- and digestive enzyme-proof. Chewing and the enzymes go to work on the food you’re eating to start breaking it down into smaller and smaller pieces. Some absorption also happens in the mouth. You absorb some sugars and some alcohol in your mouth. One of the reasons it’s important to chew is to break the food into as small pieces as possible. The more pieces – or surface area – there is for the digestive enzymes to work on, the better the rest of your digestion will work.”

“Now, hold tight. We’re about to take a drop into the esophagus. Wow! Did you feel that swallow action? Hang on, we’ll be in the stomach in a couple of seconds. The esophagus is about 9 ½ inches long. The main purpose of the esophagus is to move food from the mouth to the stomach. You see all that moist, pink tissue? It’s called mucosa. Your whole GI tract is lined with it. Mucosa’s  job is to protect the lining of your GI tract and stay slippery to help keep food moving through your GI tract. If you have GERD or acid reflux, the acid from your stomach may eat away at the mucosa of the esophagus. Your GI tract is also lined with muscles that you can’t see from here. The muscles move in a wave-like pattern to help keep the food moving along the digestive tract. OK. We’ve reached the lower esophageal sphincter. We’ll stop here for a second and let you catch your breath. With GERD or acid reflux, it’s this sphincter that is weakened that lets the stomach acid up into the esophagus. Now, we’re ready to move into the stomach. Hang on tight. The stomach is a rough place. Remember, you’re perfectly safe inside your cabin. No need to panic. Just enjoy the ride.” Here we go!”

{You feel a drop. You’re in a free-fall really. You land in a pool of fluid. Your cabin starts bouncing around and getting hit with squirts of more fluid. It gets a bit rough.}

“Welcome to the stomach! An average stomach is about 12 inches long and about 6 inches wide. It holds about 1 quart of food. You can think of the stomach like a washing machine for food. Your stomach tosses the food all around in the fluid you’re floating in. That fluid is hydrochloric acid and more digestive enzymes. That hydrochloric acid is a very strong acid. One of the things it does is kills bugs, bacteria, and other pathogens that can make us sick. It also helps activate – or make available to our bodies – some vitamins. The reason your stomach does the washing machine action is to continue to break the food up into smaller and smaller pieces. We want as much of the food exposed to the hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes as possible. We want that food broken down into as small of pieces as possible so that we can absorb the nutrients contained in it. Hang on. We’re going to start sinking towards the bottom of your stomach. Your stomach is an oblong circle. We came in through the top at the esophagus. Now, we’re moving to the bottom and on to the small intestine. It normally takes about 4 hours for your stomach to empty. That time depends on how much you ate, how well you chewed it, whether it was liquid or solid, and if it had a lot of fat or protein – they take longer to break down than carbohydrates – among other things. Once we all reach the bottom of the stomach, we’ll rest on the pyloric sphincter for a couple of minutes before moving into the small intestine. The pyloric sphincter controls how fast the stomach empties into the small intestine. When this sphincter opens, we’ll move gently into the small intestine. Ready? Here we go!”

{To be continued}


While you’re waiting for Part 2, I’ve got something for you if you have an unhappy gut. One of the best ways to get a happy gut is to track your food and symptoms. I’ve created a Symptom Log for Digestive Wellness based on my years with IBS and working with clients with digestive issues. I also created a series of videos to go along with the log to help you learn how to use it, figure out what may be triggering your symptoms, and other resources to get a happy and healthy gut. If you want the Symptom Log and other goodies, you can sign up to get it here.