Flatulence, constipation and digestive problems are just a few of the terms and topics that people would rather not talk about. And yet our digestion is a highly complex process: It breaks down the food we eat into many different components so they can be passed into our body’s metabolism via the blood and lymphatic system.
Our digestion as a unit
Our digestive organs together form a single unit that can start to falter as soon as only one of its parts stops functioning properly. To all intents and purposes, and simply put, it is a tube that stretches from the mouth to the anus and is divided into various sections. Each of these sections has a specific function and task to fulfil within the overall digestive process. Digestion begins in the mouth, because even the first bite we take ensures that food is broken down into a bolus. Saliva production and gastric juice secretion are stimulated and the bolus is transported down the oesophagus to the stomach.
While the mouth, throat and oesophagus are responsible for transporting food, the stomach, gallbladder and rectum form our storehouse. This is where the food we have ingested is put into storage and disassembled into its various component parts so that they can be better absorbed by the organism. They are assisted in this by enzymes, which are responsible for breaking down carbohydrates (amylases), proteins (proteases) and fats (lipases). The resulting end products, that is vitamins, trace elements, salts and water are absorbed through the intestinal mucosa into the blood and lymph nodes, then distributed and transported to where they can play their part in various bodily functions.
Next come the intestines, the most important part of our digestive tract. They are divided into the small intestine and the large intestine. In the small intestine, digestive juices, bile fluid from the liver and pancreatic juice complete the digestive process. Upon arrival in the large intestine, what is left is condensed into a lubricated mass that is then transported out of the body as faeces.
When things start to falter
If only one of the various stages of the digestive process is disrupted, this can give rise to a variety of digestive problems and even illnesses.
The best known among them are:
Flatulence is often caused by food or dietary problems. You should first consider your eating habits: Are you intolerant to gluten, lactose or fructose, meaning that you should avoid various foodstuffs? Or does the everyday stress in your life not allow you enough time to eat so that you simply gulp down your food without chewing it properly? You should always try to avoid stress when eating.
Many pregnant women also suffer from flatulence. Their increased progesterone levels mean their intestines become more sluggish, which can lead to fermenting food components producing more gas. While some of the “normal” intestinal gas is breathed out again via the lungs, the only way the rest of the air, that is the remaining fermentation products, can leave the body is via the intestine.
Babies also suffer from flatulence, although in their case it is probably because their intestines are not yet mature.
Certain medications, for instance antibiotics, often cause bacteria to colonise the gut and drastically reduce the natural gut flora. However, a large variety of bacteria is an essential part of the digestive process and if they are reduced in number the digestive process is no longer able to function smoothly, leading to the production of excess gas.
Illnesses such as chronic pancreatitis can also cause flatulence. A damaged pancreas is no longer able to produce sufficient digestive enzymes. As a result, food is not properly digested and remains in the digestive system for longer, leading to the production of fermentation gases.
You should consult a doctor if you experience other symptoms in addition to flatulence.
Bitter substances help prevent flatulence and bloating
In recent decades more and more naturally occurring bitter substances in salads, vegetables and bitter-tasting fruits have been eliminated by the food industry through cultivation. The aim in reducing the bitter substances is to make food taste better and to make it easier to sell. In actual fact, though, bitter substances play a key role in the production of digestive juices. And, on the other hand, reducing the level of bitter substances in food leads to the production of less gastric juice and fewer digestive enzymes, which can cause flatulence, bloating and pressure in the stomach.
Bitter substances are thus valuable helpers in the digestive process. When you eat bitter-tasting foods, the bitter receptors respond and stimulate the production of gastric juice as well as the production and excretion of digestive enzymes in the liver and pancreas and they speed up digestion in the small intestine. Bitter substances are also said to reduce sugar cravings.