Consuming nutrient-rich foods is important for your body’s overall health, but do you know how your body actually extracts nutrients from the food you eat? It’s a complex process involving multiple stages, organs and enzymes. If you want to know how it all works, come along with us on a trip through your digestive system.
The digestive process begins the moment the food passes your lips. Your teeth and tongue mash the foods and break it down into smaller pieces, so that the body’s natural chemistry can go to work on extracting the nutrients.
Your saliva contains chemicals known as enzymes – specifically, amylase. This enzyme breaks down carbohydrates and sugars into simple glucose molecules. Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of energy, but they can’t be stored in the body for very long, so your saliva gets to work on these important nutrients right away.
Once you swallow the food, it travels down your esophagus and into your stomach. For the first half hour or so, it waits in the upper portion of your stomach where the amylase from your saliva continues working on the meal’s carbohydrates. Raw foods, which usually contain their own digestive enzymes, also begin being broken down at this stage.
Then food moves down into the lower part of the stomach, where it’s introduced to new chemicals, including hydrochloric acid and protease – a digestive enzyme that breaks proteins down into amino acids, which serve as the building blocks for most of the cells in our body.
The muscular action of our stomach mixes the food with these chemicals for several hours, until it’s reduced to a watery soup called chyme, which then moves on to the small intestine.
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The small intestine, where most of the digestion and nutrient absorption takes place, is broken down into three parts – the duodenum, the jejunum and the ileum.
The duodenum is the first section of your small intestine. It’s relatively short – only about 10 to 12 inches – but it plays an essential role. This is where the chyme from your stomach meets the bile from your liver and the juices from your pancreas.
Bile is essential for breaking fats down into smaller molecules, so that your pancreatic enzymes can reduce them to fatty acids that your body can use. Excess bile is stored in the gallbladder until it is needed, and then it is channeled through the pancreas and into the small intestine.
The pancreatic juices contain lipase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down fats. It also contains more protease enzymes as well as lactase, a type of protease that works to break down lactose, the protein found in milk. Your body senses what kind of nutrients are present in the food you have consumed, and it signals the pancreas as to what kinds of enzymes it should secrete.
The duodenum is also responsible for neutralizing the acidity from your stomach acid and for the absorption of certain minerals, including iron. How well the nutrients are absorbed depends on several factors, including how well your stomach acids broke down the food and how much protein is present in your diet.
The jejunum is the second portion of the small intestine and measures an incredible 8.2 feet in length. This is where the bulk of the nutrient absorption takes place. It is lined with small finger-like projections called villi that work to stir the foods and the recently added chemical soup from the pancreas to help break the nutrients down into compounds small enough for your body to use.
Within each villus there is a small capillary that connects to the rest of your circulatory system, and a lacteal, or lymph capillary, that connects to your lymphatic system. When the particles are small enough, they travel through the villi and eventually out into the rest of your body, where they are taken up by the cells.
Glucose, amino acids and most vitamins pass through the villi into capillaries, where they are transported through veins until they reach the liver. The liver may store excess glucose molecules until they are needed later. From there, the nutrients are circled back through the heart and sent out to the other cells of the body.
The exception to this is fats. Rather than heading into the capillaries, fatty acids enter the lymphatic system, where they are eventually filtered into the bloodstream. Excess fatty acids may also come to be stored in the liver or in your body’s fat cells.
The ileum is the last part of the small intestine. At 11 feet, it’s longer than the duodenum and the jejunum combined. This is the final stage of nutrient absorption and processing before the leftovers are sent to the large intestine to prepare for excretion from the body.
The ileum essentially picks up the pieces that the jejunum misses. Vitamin B12 is absorbed here, and so are the bile salts from your liver. These also enter the bloodstream through small villi lining your intestinal walls.
Giving Your Body a Helping Hand
Anything that your body does not or cannot use is excreted from your body as waste. And if your digestive system isn’t functioning properly, that could include valuable nutrients. If your body doesn’t produce enough enzymes to break down foods, the nutrients will not be small enough to pass through your intestinal walls and into your bloodstream. Instead, they’ll just be carried on through the large intestine and out of your body.
This is more common than you might think. Cooking foods destroys the natural digestive enzymes that they contain. While it may be beneficial to our digestion to stick to raw foods, this isn’t always feasible. That’s why many people are now choosing to supplement with digestive enzymes to help facilitate the natural functioning of their digestive systems.
Enzymedica’s Digest Gold™ is one option. It contains Thera-blend™, an enzyme formula that helps your body to break down carbohydrates, fats, proteins and fiber. Our Thera-blend formula is meaningfully crafted to work throughout ALL environments of the digestive tract, meaning the enzymes will survive and continue to work in the various pH levels they will encounter in your digestive tract.