After chewing our food into small pieces it takes its leave from our mouth and heads off down the oesophagus.
The oesophagus looks a little like an old fashioned telephone cable (for those of you who can remember before mobiles) and is around 25cm long. We swallow between 600-2000 times every day and to be able to do this it requires the work of no less than 20 pairs of muscles. Your oesophagus hits your stomach on the right side, which is not the shortest route it could take, but is where the least pressure is exerted when you walk or cough (otherwise we would be burping or vomiting with every step!).
Once food hits your stomach it finds a highly acidic and mostly sterile environment (not too many bugs hanging out here, except… good ol’ Helicobacter pylori). The stomach acid helps to:
- Activate digestive enzymes
- Kill bugs
- Denature large protein molecules
Did you know? That H. pylori has lived with us for so long that scientists can tell which human populations are closely related by looking at the particular strains of H. pylori they carry.
The stomach is responsible for the initial breakdown of protein, carbohydrates and fats (our macro-nutrients). It also produces hormones and chemicals for optimal digestion. The major role it takes is breaking down food into tiny, tiny pieces (about 0.2cm big) for delivery to the small intestine.
Depending on what you’ve eaten will depend upon how long food hangs out in the stomach. Carbohydrates move more quickly through than fats and proteins. A piece of cake, for example, will be churned up in about two hours, whilst your lovely, juicy steak, may take up to 6 hours before it continues on its way. That’s why a carb rich meal doesn’t leave us feeling as full for as long.
Sometimes the stomach sends gastric juices where they shouldn’t be, back up into the oesophagus. This is known as reflux. The standard treatment is to give antacids, which is problematic in the long-term, as it reduces stomach acid and can lead to an overgrowth of non-beneficial bacteria (namely, H pylori – not that old chestnut).
Suffering from reflux? Try this:
- Apple cider vinegar – add to meal 2-3 teaspoons in water with meals (Braggs or Melrose – from health food store or the clinic).
- Include ginger and turmeric in the diet – these are great anti-inflammatories.
- Eat the protein portion of the meal first.
Next month we continue our journey, down, down, deeper and down.