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I couldn't eat another thing!

                                       December 2010  

 I couldn’t eat another thing!

FoodFor many, mid winter means food! Nothing is nicer than tucking into a hearty hot meal in the depth of a big cold spell. Christmas turkey, big puddings; most of us look forward to the special meals of winter.

The trouble is, our digestive tract may not be quite so enthusiastic. It is actually quite a delicate system that should be given more consideration! It is not just weight gain that is a problem from over-indulgence; suddenly tucking into enormous meals can throw our whole systems out of sync.

Digestion is important because it is the system that breaks down food so that the body can use its nutrients to build and nourish cells and to provide energy.

Our digestive tract is made up of several different organs which all have a part to play in general digestion. It starts with the mouth, when you chew and the food begins to be mixed with saliva to begin the digestive process. From here, the food is swallowed down into the esophagus which connects your throat to your stomach below. Near the connection with the stomach, the passage is closed by the sphincter, a small ringlike muscle which relaxed to let food pass and then closes up again.

Once in the stomach, the digestion proper begins. The stomach can contain a surprisingly large amount of food and liquid, and here it is mixed with a number of special digestive juices including a stomach acid and an enzyme that digests protein. A thick mucus layer prevents the strong acidic digestive juices from dissolving the tissue of the stomach itself.

In the lower part of the stomach there are muscles which work to ensure all the contents are thoroughly mixed.

After this, the food moves down further thanks to muscle action from the stomach and slowly enters the small intestine.

Not all food remains in the stomach for the same length of time. Fat stays the longest, protein stays a little less while carbohydrates are pushed through quite quickly.

While the whole system is incredibly complex, basically most digested nutrients are absorbed through the intestinal walls as the food moves through and then transported throughout the body. The surface of the small intestines contains little folds that are covered with tiny finger like projections. These are called villi. These little villi are themselves covered with more projections so there is a massive surface area through which food can be absorbed.

The food then passes on into the large intestine and the remaining waste material is finally ejected.

At Christmas and at other celebratory meals, you can strain the capacity of the digestive tract causing a building up of stomach pressure. This can cause the sphincter to open, allowing acids to escape upwards which can cause immense discomfort. Eating more slowly to let your stomach cope with the sudden influx of food can help prevent problems.

Because fatty foods stay in the stomach longer, eating a surplus of fatty foods which usually go hand in hand with a rich meal means the digestive system has to work harder.

All this doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the festivities of the winter season, but understanding just a little more about how digestion works might help us eat just a tad more sensibly!!

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