The symphony of digestion & where things can go wrong

When I was 27 I contracted a urinary tract infection.


No big deal, right?


I took antibiotics to resolve the infection without ever considering the consequences it may have on all the healthy bacteria in my digestive system, after all there are 100 trillion bugs in there, how could a course of antibiotics have lasting impact on the health of my gut microbiome?


I didn’t realize the decade of stress both from over exercising, tight finances, and a doctoral program had already altered the function of my digestive system and immune system and the antibiotics would act as a catalyst to my digestive woes.


Our  digestive organs work to create a symphony for digestion. Chronic stress, a poor diet, and medications can easily derail this symphony and ultimately impair digestion as they did for me.


Let’s take a deeper look at each of the main functions of our digestive organs and where things typically go “south.”



Primary function: Digest food with chewing and salivary enzymes


Saliva contains enzymes (salivary amylase, lingual lipase, and trace amounts of salivary kallikrein) to aid in breaking down our food and protect us from the bacteria present on the food we consume (lysozyme).


Chewing the food adequately is probably under appreciated. It is recommended that we chew a single bite of soft food 5-10 times, and more dense foods 30-40 times, however the average number of chews is only 6xs (this is from a study of 1,000 ppl eating a subway sandwich in Britain)!


The longer you chew the more time the enzymes in the saliva have to break down the food and greater the mastication can break down the food.


It also means it will take longer to eat any portion of food, as such the stomach will have the time necessary to signal your brain that it is full, which is approximately 20 minutes.


Where things go wrong:

Under chewing the food means there is more work for the stomach to do when the food enters its domain.


If you’d like to optimize digestion in the stomach, try slowing down and mindfully eating your next meal taking notice of just how many times you chew and then see if adding a few more chews improves digestion in the hours thereafter.


If you give this a go, let me know of your experience! Any less GERD, upper belly bloat, or tummy pain?



Primary function: Produce gastric juices to break down food.


The stomach is the next organ in line for digestion.


The primary job of the stomach is to produce pepsinogen and gastric acid to break down the food.


The parietal cells inside the stomach should produce adequate acid to lower the pH inside the stomach to 2.0.


This acidic environment is necessary for proper digestion of the food as well as the function of the lower esophageal sphincter.


Where things go wrong:

If the stomach acid is not low enough the food may sit in the stomach for longer than usual, you may experience lots of churning of your belly, and the churning may cause reflux.


If the pH inside the stomach is not low enough, this sphincter may not function properly, then as the stomach churns to break down the food, this acidic fluid can escape into the esophagus and cause reflux or heartburn as a result.


The above is a potentially confrontational statement considering the extent to which our society has been fed the idea that heartburn is the result of too much acid & thus are given antacids...which further perpetuate the problem by lowering the stomach acid even further.


Common associations of inadequate stomach acid production include a

  • Any diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar, alcohol or coffee

  • Chronic stress (physical {even excessive exercise}, emotional, or psychological)

  • Autoimmune diseases

  • Hormonal imbalances

  • Obesity

  • Aging

  • IBS

  • Gastroparesis (slow transit time, numerous causes including head injury, pain medications, food allergy and sensitivity as well as GI infections.)

  • Medications (such as acid lowering medications like antacids, proton pump inhibitors, H2 blockers, as well as oral contraceptives, antibiotics, and neuroleptic drugs such as Neurontin and Lyrica to name a few.)



Primary Functions:

1) Digest our food with digestive enzymes

2) Balance our blood sugar with Insulin


The three main enzymes produced are proteases to digest proteins, amylase to digest carbohydrates, and lipase to digest fat.


The above enzymes and the hormone insulin are released by the pancreas into the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine via the pancreatic duct. This runs side by side with the bile duct, these two ducts come together to form the ampulla of vater that then empties into the duodenum.


Where things go wrong:

It is not uncommon when either the bile duct or the pancreatic duct is compromised or the organs producing either bile or enzymes is impaired to have issues with the other organ. The most common dietary causes of these issues are diets high in processed carbohydrates, sugar, and poor quality fats.



Primary Functions:

1) Liver produces bile for fat breakdown

2) Liver cleans the blood of cellular byproducts, hormone metabolites, and environmental exposures.

3) The gallbladder houses the bile for use when dietary fats are present in the duodenum

4) Bile emulsifies dietary fat so it may be properly absorbed and utilized by the body


The gallbladder is a tiny finger like projection next to the liver that stores the bile produced in the liver. Bile is necessary for the emulsification of our dietary fat so that the lipase from the pancreas can work optimally and the fatty acids may become available from the dietary fat we eat to be absorbed and utilized by the body.


The gallbladder plays a role in the communication of the liver with the intestines. When food containing dietary fat enters the duodenum, the first portion of the small intestine, it signals the bile to be excreted.


When bile is excreted it also releases with it waste material (products of hormone break down, cellular by products, chemical and toxins that were present in our environment etc) from the liver. These waste materials excreted with the bile are then eliminated from the body via the feces.


The bile enters the small intestine via first the bile duct and then a common duct shared with the pancreas called the ampulla of vater, also known as the hepatopancreatic duct.


Where things go wrong:

There are three main things that can affect the function of the liver and gallbladder.


1. Over consuming alcohol, sugar, or poor quality fat leading to improper function of the liver or the development of gallstones.


2. If you have genetic predisposition to an impairment in detoxification.


3. Impairment in the function of the pancreas or stomach such that they are not breaking down the dietary fats to the correct structure that the it recognizes the need to release bile.



Primary Functions:

1) Absorption of nutrients from the food we eat.

2) Protection from foreign invaders via microvilli and mucous membrane

3) Home of over 100 trillion bacteria, our intestinal microbiome

4) Home of over 70% of our immune systems cells


The primary job of the intestine is to absorb nutrients from the food that we eat. It is also the home of over 70% of our immune system cells, which makes a whole lotta sense when you think about the digestive system as being the means by which we interact with our environment at large daily through the food that we eat.

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Intestinal tissue comprised of little hair like projections called microvilli (gatekeepers) who keep the that which shouldn’t enter the bloodstream out (when it is healthy.)


Besides the immune cells in the intestine there is also two other forms of protection present in the intestines to help with digestion and keep us healthy, they are a mucosal lining and a microbiome of bacteria.


It is a growing field of research and there have been bacteria identified necessary for digestive health, as well as bacterial strains that when imbalanced are associated with numerous conditions including, obesity, cardiovascular disease, chronic fatigue, and IBS to name a few.


Where things go wrong:

The mucous membrane is like a “slip and slide for your digestive system. Starting in your mouth and extending to the anus, the mucous membrane is there to prevent food and infections from coming in direct contact with the tissues they protect.


When healthy the mucous membrane prevent the microbiome from becoming imbalanced as well as from the potentially problematic bacteria, yeast, parasites from taking up residence in the digestive system.


If the mucosal membrane is compromised the tissue of the intestines, the microvilli can be damaged, as a result the intestinal lining becomes leaky, allowing undigested food and foreign invaders to potentially leak into the bloodstream, this is colloquially known as “leaky gut syndrome.”


The digestive system is complex organism and it can be disrupted in many different ways.


If you’re feeling like your digestion if “off”, reach out and schedule a free 15 minute chat where I’ll share a free health tip to help you start feeling relief!

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Lacey ChittleComment