Our digestive system may have evolved over time with the rest of the body, but it is often out of sync with the way we live today. Many of us eat without thinking, between meetings or school activities. We grab a bite on the go or have a sandwich at our desks, thinking that we’ve satiated our hunger and that our body will take care of the rest. However, statistics show that 44% of people worldwide went to work in the last month experiencing digestive health problems1. When digestion does not run smoothly, we wonder why. Most of us believe that we cannot deal with these problems without seeing a healthcare professional1, but there is a lot we can do ourselves.
Understanding how our digestive system works - how the gut regulates our hormones, our mood and our immune system - can help us develop daily strategies to take better care of ourselves.
Healthy gut, healthy mind
For many of us, “digestion” simply means food passing through our mouths and into our stomachs, but it is a complex process that serves the body in various ways. Our digestive system breaks down foods and liquids into their chemical components and determines how they will be used. For example, whether they are absorbed as nutrients for energy or used to build and repair cells2. In fact, our digestive system is commonly referred to as our ‘second brain’ and has a huge effect on the functioning of our body and mind3.
Think about it. Have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach? This actually suggests the direct effect the brain has on the stomach and intestine4. The communication system between your gut and brain is called the gut-brain axis. The gut-brain axis develops during the first three years of life, after which it is influenced by diet, medication and lifestyle factors. 95% of serotonin, a major mood-influencing hormone, is not produced in the brain but in the stomach lining. This means that digestive disruptions can be the cause or the effect of anxiety, stress or depression5. Gut microbes also affect our behavior and emotions.
Your gut is home to your immune system
As well as a strong connection between our brain and gut, 70% of our immune system is located in the gut and needs healthy and regular food intake to support our overall health6. There are hundreds of species of bacteria and more than 100 trillion7 live in our gut. Together with fungi and viruses, these bacteria make up the gut microbiome in our body. Bacteria in our gut have been the subject of a large amount of research8. Our digestive system functions at its optimum when there is a balance of the good and bad gut bacteria living in it. Scientific evidence now shows that the types of food that you eat will directly determine the levels of certain bacteria in your gut, and therefore the diet and food you choose will either support and strengthen your immune system or weaken your defense system. A balanced diet of vegetables, whole-grain products, dried-fruits significantly supports our health and well-being4.
Your liver is your powerhouse
Many people do not even realize that the liver is an integral part of the digestive system. Although we eat food, our digestive system doesn’t absorb food – it absorbs nutrients. Our food must be broken down into nutrients, which are cultivated and detoxified by the liver. Therefore, our body’s ability to digest food directly impacts the liver’s role in digestion. As the second largest organ in the body, the liver detoxifies substances like fatty foods, alcohol and medicines, as well as stores and recycles nutrients and makes food digestible6,9. What might surprise you is that even if you lose up to 75% of your liver, the remaining 25% can regenerate completely10. Even though it is a powerful organ, when the liver is overloaded with toxins, sugary foods and high sodium foods, some of the toxic chemicals leak past the liver into the bloodstream and could end up in the fatty tissues and the nervous system11. This can lead to stomach problems such as bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and negatively impact our mood, causing anxiety, depression and more12.
The more we know about our body and how our digestive system works, the better we can treat and react to it. Understanding the science behind our bodies can help explain physical and emotional feelings and enable us to be more in control of our 24/7 schedules.
Fun facts about digestion
- It takes 24 to 72 hours for the food to move through our digestive system5.
- Every 6 months we produce our body weight in excrement16.
- The characteristic brown color of our stools comes from the bile that is produced in the liver9.
- The digestive system is over 7 meters long17.
References1] Sanofi ISCD Global Report 2018 https://www.sanofi.com/-/media/Project/One-Sanofi-Web/Websites/Global/Sanofi-COM/Home/en/science-and-innovation/docs/200718-Sanofi-ISCD-Global-Report-FINAL.pdf
13] World Gastroenterology Organisation Global Guidelines, Probiotics and prebiotics,February 2017