Contrary to the popular concept, your gut (or digestive system) is not just the stomach and intestines. The human gut starts from the mouth and goes all the way down to the rectum with the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, and colon in between.
The pancreas, liver, and gallbladder are not in continuity with the mouth, as the esophagus and other organs are, but they have their ducts opening in the gut and contributing their own essential role to the process of digestion.
Since digestion is pretty much the most basic process humans need for survival, the gut performing this function has many complex things associated with it. Other than all these organs, the gut also has an intricate network of vessels and nerves and a HUGE colony of microorganisms that we call gut flora.
Alternate names for the human gut:
- The gut
- Digestive system
- Digestive tract
- Gastrointestinal (GI) system
Why Gut Health Is Important ?
The human gut is involved with pretty much every aspect of health and wellness. It provides the essential building blocks that we need to live and function. Everything you do comes from the digestive system.
Once the chewing of food is over, digestion is quite an unconscious effort to propel the food from esophagus to stomach, process it, send it to intestines while keeping in check the number of enzymes allowed to enter the digestive system- all this is managed by our gut without much conscious trouble to us.
The gut microbiome (or cells in your gut) also controls how your immune system works. By communicating with immune cells, the gut microbiome can control how your body responds to infection. The better the gut microbiome balance, the better the immune response to infections.
Other than this energy and immunity aspect, there is an important connection that exists between the brain and gut.
The gut’s connection to the brain is an important element and one that is a hot topic for medical research. Remember how we have those gut feelings and how granny always tells us to trust our gut instinct?
Well, that’s not just symbolic. An extensive network of neurons and lots of chemicals and some hormones create this connection between our brain and gut.
This network constantly communicates with the brain, creating a super-highway often referred to as the brain-gut-axis. This neuronal network is also known as Enteric Nervous System (ENS) and is often referred to as the second brain of the body. Hundreds of millions of neurons connect the brain to the ENS.
But what’s the need for this huge network?
Do you also wonder why is it that the gut needs an entire “brain” of its own?
Because it is THAT important.
This circuit by neurons not only sends messages to the brain about the status of the gut but also allows the brain to directly impact the environment within the gut.
The rate at which food is being moved inside the gut, how much acid is being released into the stomach, how much mucus lines the inside of the gut, all this has an impact on the groups of good bacteria (and the bad ones) – trillions of them – living in the gut.
These good bacteria are important for digestion, protection against bad bacteria, vitamin production (such as vitamin K, vitamin B, vitamin B12, riboflavin, and thiamine), and regulation of the immune system.
A rich diversity of microbes in the gut ensures a stronger immune system. Recent research also suggests that the communication between the gut and the brain is influenced by the microbes in the gut. So, it’s not just the food, it’s also a lot of other things that the gut controls.
A Brief Overview Of The Function Of All Parts Of The Gut (aka The Digestive System)
All the organs in our gut are constantly working to provide us with the basic units of energy so that we can function well. Let’s find out what role each component of the gut plays. After all, it’s good to know the functioning of our own bodies.
- Mouth: Other than the chewing function of our mouth, the saliva in it initiates the initial breakdown of the food.
- Esophagus: This is a muscular tube that acts as a food pipe and releases the food coming from the mouth into the stomach.
- Stomach: Further breakdown of the food begins in the stomach. Enzymes here digest the proteins and other nutrients. The churning movement of the stomach turns the food into a compact ball – the chyme. After an appropriate time, through a connection between the gut and the brain, it is decided to move the food from the stomach to the small intestine.
- Small intestine: The nutrients from the food are absorbed in this part of the gut and are then transferred to the rest of the body. Although we call it the SMALL intestine, it actually measures around 21 feet if we stretch it out. The curved shape of the small intestine helps it to occupy a small space while still having a large surface area for absorption. In addition, it has small finger-like projections – villi – on the inside surface (just like the towel) that further increase the surface area to increase absorption.
- Pancreas: Pancreas provide digestive enzymes and two hormones (insulin and glucagon) that regulate blood sugar. Glucagon is released in the blood when the sugar level is low and it prevents the level from getting too low, whereas insulin is released to prevent the sugar level from getting too high.
- Liver: It produces bile (a dark-green-to-yellowish-brown fluid) which is released into the gallbladder from where it is released into the small intestine through a duct – the common bile duct. The small intestine in turn sends nutrients to the liver where they convert into glucose and proteins. Bile helps in the digestion of fats. Another important role of the liver is to detoxify chemicals and break down (metabolize) the medicines we consume. Other functions of the liver include the synthesis of materials to help with the clotting of blood and storage of glycogen, vitamins, and minerals.
- Gallbladder: It’s a small pear-sized pouch that sits under the liver, and it stores the bile.
- Colon and Rectum: The remaining digestive material then comes to the colon where water and electrolytes are absorbed for the body’s use, and the solid waste goes out from the rectum.
Gut As Your Frontline Defense
Other than chewing food and the digestion and distribution of nutrients, the digestive system also acts as our frontline defense. The acid and many enzymes present in the stomach sterilize the food, thus eliminating any harmful microorganism that may be present in it. Also, there are certain receptors in the gut that signal the presence of harmful organisms (like bacteria) in the food. This helps the immune system to act fast in protecting our body from disease.
Considering that a healthy gut acts as an engine for the entire body, we’d like to end this article on a simple message: Caring for gut health is caring for the whole body.