The Many Health Benefits of Efficient Digestive Function
Created by Dr. William J. Keller
A properly balanced diet is necessary for maintaining good health.The digestive system essentially converts the foods that we eat into the energy needed to support life. The anatomy of our digestive system involves a complex series of organs and glands that work in concert to break down our consumed foods into smaller molecules that can be utilizedby the body.
Digestion begins in the mouth where food is partially broken down by the process of chewing and by the enzymatic action of the carbohydrate-digesting amylase enzymes present in the saliva. Food is then swallowed and makes its way down the esophagus to the stomach.
In the stomach, food is mixed, ground and digested by gastric acid and a protein-digesting enzyme called pepsin. Gastric acid consists mainly of hydrochloric acid (HCl), and it efficiently breaks down food material, particularly protein. If production of gastric acid is decreased, as is often the case with advancing age, digestion is less efficient.
Researchers in the U.S. found that over 30 percent of men and women past the age of 60 suffer from atrophic gastritis, a condition marked by little or nogastricacid secretion (1). Fortunately, natural approaches and nutritional supplements can help support optimal digestion in the stomach.
The partially digested food leaves the stomach and enters the small intestine, a tubular structure composed of three segments: the duodenum, jejunum and ileum. The duodenum continues the process of breaking down food with the aid of bile from the gallbladder and enzymes released by the pancreas and the duodenal walls. Bile causes a breakdown of fat from large to smaller globules.
Further digestion of fats, protein and carbohydrates takes place with the help of the pancreatic enzymes lipase, trypsin and amylase, respectively. Nutritional supplements that contain these enzymes help support small intestinal digestive action.
Digestion is basically complete once food passes through the duodenum. Absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream takes place in the jejunum and ileum segments of the small intestine.
After absorption of food molecules into the bloodstream, the blood is purified by the liver to remove harmful substances. The liver also stores fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K) and excess glucose for future use. Nutritional supplements can be used to support these valuable liver functions.
The large intestine receives mostly indigestible material and water from the small intestine. Excess water and any residual minerals are absorbed in the large intestine. Fiber aids the process of moving the remaining debris through the large intestine thus easing the passage of waste known as a stool. In addition to promoting elimination, fiber also helps to support friendly bacteria. About 100 trillion bacteria reside in the digestive system. These bacteria in the large intestine perform several essential functions.
Probiotics, as these friendly bacteria are called, promote efficient digestion, support the immune system, inhibit the growth of pathogenic microorganisms, and produce several vitamins. Many supplement products that consist of soluble and/or insoluble fiber from a variety of plant sources benefit waste removal. Additionally, many different bacterial specie sin the form of nutritional supplements function as probiotics.
Probiotics have long been known to provide many benefits to human health as mentioned in the previous paragraph. I have read with great interest several recent reports on some additional actions that are quite surprising. A good example here is the experiment where mice, fed broth containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus, behaved less anxiously than mice fed broth without bacteria. These behavioral changes were partially explained by differences in brain chemical receptors and stress hormone (corticosterone) levels.
The overall observation was that a change in the mix of intestinal bacteria provided by L.rhamnosus influenced mouse behavior by way of the vagus nerve. The vagal impulses induced by the microbes resulted in an increase in GABA (gamma amino butyric acid, a neurotransmitter or brain chemical) receptors in the brain and lower levels of stress hormone. The net result was a significant decrease in anxiety observed in the mice receiving the bacteria-containing broth (2).
Just a few years ago, most scientists were of the opinion that probiotics only acted locally in the gut. However, this study suggests that gut bacteria could play a role in various brain and psychiatric disorders as well as individual behavioral differences.
Another fairly intense research area involves how intestinal microbes contribute to or counteract chronic inflammation. As we all know, chronic inflammation is associated with many disease states. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) appears to be directly influenced by specific probiotic species. It was interesting to read that those probiotic strains that specifically keep IBD in remission do not function normally in the presence of an iron-rich environment (3).
Species of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium were found to be inhibited by high iron levels and this resulted in a failure to reduce inflammation. These research data suggest plausible explanations as to why IBD becomes established.
It has been long assumed that the intestinal microflora consisted of many bacterial populations. The presence of fungi in the gastrointestinal tract was nearly always associated with an infectious disease. However, a new study has demonstrated that the mammalian gut contains a rich fungal community and that these fungi interact with immune system receptors (4). Disturbances in this communication between immune system receptors and the indigenous fungi will usually result ininflammatory conditions such as IBD.
These research data show that the fungal community in the gut can coexist with bacteria and that this diverse microbial population has established a delicate balance with the immune system. Further clarification of these complex interactions will provide a better understanding of gut-mediated health and disease. Of equal importance, as this probiotic research continues, valuable therapies will eventually emerge.
1. Krasinski SD, Russell RM, Samloff IM, Jacob RA, Dallal GE, McGandy RB, Hartz SC. Fundic atrophic gastritis in an elderly population. Effect on hemoglobin and several serum nutritional indicators. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 1986 Nov;34(11):800-6.
2. Bravo JA, et al. Ingestion of Lactobacillus strain regulates emotional behavior and central GABA receptor expression in a mouse via the vagus nerve. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2011 Sep 20;108(38):16050-5.
3. Bailey JR, Probert CS, Cogan TA. Identification and characterisation of an iron-responsive candidate probiotic. PLoS One. 2011;6(10):e26507.
4. Iliev ID, Funari VA, Taylor KD, Nguyen Q, et al. Interactions between commensal fungi and the C-type lectin receptor Dectin-1 influence colitis. Science. 2012 Jun 8;336(6086):1314-7.
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