How your body works, Part 1- The digestive system
By Penelope A. Domogo, MD
Starting this issue, we will discuss how our body works and see how it relates to the laws of the universe which we discussed in the previous Sundays. Just like any machine that we buy, we need to know how it operates first so that we know how to take care of it. For example, if you buy a juicer, you need to know how it operates by reading the manual or by having somebody demonstrate how to operate it. Otherwise, it will be destroyed after one minute. I know of many gadgets that conked out because they were plugged to a 220-volts outlet when they could only handle 110 volts. Similarly, our body will malfunction or conk out if we don’t know how it works. We learned these in science in school so this will be a review.
All living creatures need at least 3 basic substances to survive and develop. These are air, water and food, which enter our bodies and are processed before they reach the individual cells where they are used. Our Creator is surely the greatest artist because he created amazing complex organisms, not just simple machines. We will appreciate the human body better if we discuss it by system- digestive, respiratory, urinary, etc. We have to bear in mind, though, that all these systems are interrelated and what happens to one affects the other. These are the laws of vibration and rhythm in action. Because almost everybody loves eating, we will first discuss the digestive system. What happens to the things (food and water) that we put in our mouth or we put in our children’s mouths. This is a lengthy discussion but please read on, for your health’s sake.
The digestive system is called a system because it is composed of many parts perfectly designed by our Creator (not by the factory) to perform the function of digestion, absorption and elimination. Digestion is the process by which the body breaks down food into its component parts so that the sugars and starches become glucose, fats become fatty acids and proteins become amino acids. These smaller substances can then be absorbed into the blood and into the cells so we will live, be healthy and joyful. It is a complex machinery not like the rubber tube and gas tank of a jeep where you just pour gasoline and the jeep will function.
Digestion begins even before you eat or drink. The thought of green mango or the smell of roasted (naidamdam) camote or rice coffee, or sight of colorful salad greens starts the process with saliva forming in your mouth. Saliva is slightly alkaline and it contains enzymes needed to start breaking down and detoxifying your food. Your mouth is like a manual mixer and also part of your immune system. Taste buds may be able to recognize poisons so that you spit it out. Taste buds also allow appreciation of the various tastes.
As you chew, your stomach and small intestines prepare to receive the food. The renowned Michio Kushi of the Macrobiotics movement says “The most important factor in proper digestion is whether or not food has been properly alkalinized before it reaches the stomach.” Meaning, food has to be chewed well. If not alkalinized by saliva, your food will add more acid to your stomach, especially if its sweet. So don’t be surprised why there are a lot of people with hyperacidity and heart burn in this harried world. You need to chew until the food is watery before you swallow. Chewing and swallowing are voluntary (so this is where you have a choice- to chew well or not) so you should remember these information every time you rush to eat.
Next destination is the stomach. From here until the rectum, everything that happens is automatic (involuntary). You should now relax and let the system work- not rush to another activity. Indigenous Igorot tradition says we wait “ta manadnad nan kinan” (“matunawan” in Tagalog). The stomach is the main mixer containing strong acids- hydrochloric acid and pepsin- because this is where the main digestion occurs. These strong acids can melt the fish bones that you swallowed and also kill harmful creatures (bacteria, viruses, etc.) that come with your food. Like a blender, it churns and mashes together with the gastric juices, all the food you have eaten to make a more liquid mixture. So if you didn’t chew your food well, your stomach will be overworked.
Taking in liquids, even water, with your food will dilute these digestive juices and thus slow down the process. Normally, it takes about 4-5 hours for your stomach to empty itself completely of the food you ate. Why is it important that your stomach is empty before you eat again? Think of grinding peanuts in your blender – you have to grind the first batch till the desired consistency then empty it before you grind the next batch. What happens if you keep putting peanuts even if the first batch is not ground yet?
From the stomach the acidified blended food (alias “chyme”) is pushed automatically to the small intestines where it is mixed with more digestive juices from the pancreas and liver and gallbladder and are acted on by intestinal bacteria for the final breakdown of all the food. Bile helps absorb fat into the bloodstream. The digestive juices from the first part of the small intestine- called duodenum- and the pancreas are alkaline and the succeeding part secretes juices that are acidic. That’s the delicate balancing act of nature – laws of polarity and polarity at work.
Absorption of digested food occurs naturally in the small intestine so the Creator made it about 20-22 feet long. This is the “selet” which is a favorite in “bongsos” ( salted pig innards). Food would need about 4-5 hours for this journey – enough time for the food to be absorbed. Foods absorbed in the small intestine, like unpolished rice and other whole foods, makes the best quality blood and lymph. Foods absorbed before they reach the small intestine produce poorer quality blood. Absorption of alcohol and refined sugar starts in the mouth. Refined flour products like regular pandesal are absorbed in the stomach.
After squeezing out most of the nutrients from the digested food mix, the small intestines (without your command) pushes the left-over stuff to the large intestine. The large intestine is 5 feet long and fatter than the small intestine. Its job is mainly to resorb and absorb water and some remaining nutrients then push the leftover matter to the rectum then to your anus which will evacuate it. Normal bowel movement is at least once a day. Transit through the colon takes about 30-40 hours. All in all, food would take about 3 days to travel from the mouth to the toilet. However, if you eat a lot of fiber, transit time is less.
It’s amazing how the body, particularly the digestive system, digests food in an orderly manner, each part of the system interconnected with each other for a purpose. Carbohydrate digestion begins in the mouth with the saliva and continues in the stomach. Protein digestion begins in the stomach and continues in the intestines. Fat is largely digested in the intestines. Again, the law of rhythm and transmutation.
Foods high in fat will slow down digestion because for fat to be digested, it needs first to be alkalinized and emulsified by the various digestive juices. Just like the grease in your hand cannot be removed until it is emulsified with soap and hot water. Fiber, that indigestible material from plants, helps in digestion.
All these processes of digestion, absorption and elimination use energy. Thus if you are very tired, you don’t have appetite. So don’t force yourself to eat. Rest first and your appetite will return. You will also note that after a heavy meal you are sleepy or sluggish. This is because the blood is diverted from your brain and other parts of your body to your stomach where energy is needed.
Digestive problems will be prevented, minimized and eased if the stomach is presented with a thoroughly chewed simple meal, given time to digest it and then given time to rest before adding more food. Ideally, eating should be spaced 4-5 hours apart just like our parents and forebears did before. Internationally known health educators Dr. Aileen Ludington and Hans Dielh say “Not interrupting the digestive cycle with snacks will sweeten the disposition of a cranky stomach.” ***
“Open my eyes, so that I may see wondrous things out of your law.” Psalms 119:18