by Kathleen M McCoy February 25, 2021 3 min read

The Greek physician Hippocrates - also widely known as the Father of Modern Medicine is famous for saying: "All Disease Begins in the Gut." But what is the gut -- and what is gut health? In order for our body to digest the food we eat, absorb the essential nutrients we need and eliminate any waste efficiently -- essential processes need to occur by specific organs that make up the digestive system, each with its own job and responsibilities.

Here's a look inside the process that metabolizes our food.

What Is the Gut?

The gut is a complex system where digestion and nutrient absorption begins. Through an orchestrated process that starts in the mouth and ends in the colon, foods are first chewed and then further broken down with stomach acid, enzymes and bile. Most digestion takes place in the small intestine, which delivers nutrients to the liver and the conversion into glucose and protein begins.

Peristalsis is the involuntary movement of food through the digestive tract and an essential part of the digestive process. It occurs in multiple organs during several stages of digestion. Here's an overview of how the gut works:

  • Mouth: Digestion begins in the mouth with the act of chewing food. Saliva is a digestive juice that adds moisture to help move the food more easily and it contains an enzyme that begins to break down food - particularly starches.
  • Esophagus: Once you swallow, peristalsis continues to push food down the esophagus and into the stomach. The brain is in constant communication, signaling the muscles to transport food and liquid through the system.
  • Lower esophageal sphincter: This is a ringlike muscle/valve at the end of the esophagus. The brain sends a signal for the sphincter to relax that allows food to pass into the next area: the stomach.
  • Stomach:Here stomach muscles mix the food and liquid with further digestive juices (stomach acid and enzymes) to form a thick partially digested mixture known as "chyme" ready to move into the small intestine for the next stage.
  • Small intestine: Here digestive enzymes and bile are released from the pancreas and liver to continue the digestive process. Digested nutrients and water are absorbed into the bloodstream through the small intestinal walls and any waste products move into the large intestine.
  • Large intestine: This is where any waste products from the digestive process collect, including undigested food, fluid and older gut cells. The large intestine absorbs water, changes the waste into stool and peristalsis moves the stool into the rectum to be eliminated during a bowel movement.

What Is Gut Health?

If Hippocrates was correct, keeping your gut healthy is the key to wellness. If you aren't absorbing key nutrients your body requires daily to function, you can develop deficiencies that may lead to ongoing health challenges. Your gut needs a healthy balance of friendly bacteria to protect against more harmful invaders like viruses, fungi and unfriendly bacteria.

While digestive upset is relatively common, persistent symptoms could be a sign of an underlying issue that needs further attention. Here are some signs your gut may not be healthy:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating and gas
  • Constipation or loose stools
  • Heartburn
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea

Causes of Gut Challenges

If you experience persistent symptoms or more severe digestive upset, it could be a sign that you have GI distress or lifestyle patterns that can affect your gut's ability to digest food and absorb nutrients. According to the Cleveland Clinic, one or more of the following may contribute to an unbalanced gut:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Colon polyps
  • Colitis
  • Eating a low-fiber diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Changes in routine
  • Common food sensitivities including to gluten and dairy
  • Stress
  • Overuse of laxatives
  • Antacids that contain aluminum or calcium
  • Taking antidepressants, iron or narcotic painkillers
  • Pregnancy

Finding Your Gut's Baseline

If you experience ongoing discomfort relating to your gut, it is imperative to find the root cause. Through a simple at-home lab testing, you can assess how well your gut is functioning by highlighting any digestion and absorption issues. You will get a clear understanding of how well your body is doing from the inside out.

Once you know your gut's baseline, you can begin to make the appropriate changes to your diet and lifestyle that support optimal wellness in the most beneficial way for you.

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