The digestive system is made up of the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. When food enters the mouth, it passes through the digestive tract.
Bacteria in the digestive tract help with digestion, as do the nervous and circulatory systems.
The importance of digestion
Digestion breaks down the food we eat into nutrients, which the body needs for energy, growth, and cell repair. Foods and liquids are changed into smaller molecules of nutrients before being absorbed into the blood which carries them into the body’s cells. These molecules are broken down further into carbohydrates, protein, fats, and vitamins.
Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches, and fibre which are found in many foods. Carbohydrates are classed as either simple or complex, depending on their structure. Simple carbohydrates include sugars which occur naturally in foods such as fruits, vegetables, milk, and milk products, as well as added sugars which are added during the manufacturing process. Complex carbohydrates are the starches and fibre which are found in whole-grain breads and cereals, starchy vegetables, and legumes.
Foods such as meat, eggs, and beans are rich in dietary protein that the body digests into smaller molecules called amino acids. The body absorbs amino acids through the small intestine into the blood, which then carries into the body’s cells.
Fat molecules are a rich source of energy for the body and they also help the body absorb vitamins. Oils, such as corn, canola, olive, safflower, soybean, and sunflower, are examples of healthy fats. The oils which are used to make baked goods and processed snack foods are unhealthy fats. When the body breaks fats down, they become fatty acids and glycerol.
Water-soluble vitamins include all the B vitamins and vitamin C. Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E, and K. Each vitamin has a different role to play in maintaining health. The body stores fat-soluble vitamins in the liver and fatty tissues, whereas the body does not easily store water-soluble vitamins and flushes out any excess in the urine.
How does digestion work?
Digestion begins in the mouth with chewing and ends in the small intestine. As food passes through the digestive tract, it mixes with the digestive juices, which breaks food down into small molecules. The body then absorbs these small molecules through the walls of the small intestine, where they then pass into the bloodstream, which delivers them to the rest of the body. Waste products of digestion pass through the large intestine and out of the body as solid matter called stool.
How does food move through the GI tract?
There is a layer of smooth muscle that allows the walls of the digestive organs to move. This movement is the action which propels food and liquid through the digestive tract.
When you swallow, food pushes down into the oesophagus, which is a muscular tube that carries food and liquids from the mouth to the stomach. A sphincter between the oesophagus and the stomach controls how liquid and food passes into the stomach.
The stomach stores the swallowed food and liquid and mixes the food and liquid with the digestive juices. The broken down food and drink becomes a liquid called chyme, which is emptied into the small intestine.
The muscles of the small intestine mix the food with digestive juices from the pancreas, liver, and intestine. The walls of the small intestine absorb nutrients into the bloodstream. The blood then delivers the nutrients to the rest of the body.
The waste products of the digestive process, such as undigested bits of food and older cells from the lining of the digestive tract. The waste products are pushed into the large intestine. The large intestine absorbs the water and any remaining nutrients and changes the waste from liquid into a hard stool.
When the digestive system is working well, you feel energetic, and in good health. But when there’s a problem, you will feel tired, bloated, and out of sorts.
Constipation is a common condition that can affects people of any age. Constipation occurs when you aren’t passing stools regularly or you feel like you’re unable to completely empty your bowel.
Constipation can also cause your bowel movements to be hard and lumpy, as well as unusually large or small.
Many people only suffer from constipation for a short time, but sometimes, it can become a chronic condition that can cause pain and discomfort and which can seriously affect quality of life.
Normal bowel habits vary from person to person. Some people go to the toilet more than once a day, whereas others may only go every three or four days.
It may also feel more difficult to pass stools and you may feel unable to empty your bowel completely.
Other symptoms of constipation can include stomach cramps, feeling bloated, nausea, and loss of appetite.
What causes constipation?
Sometimes it’s not clear what the exact cause is, but there are factors that are known to contribute to it:
not eating enough dietary fibre, such as fruit, vegetables, and cereals
changes in your routine or lifestyle, such as a change in your eating habits
ignoring the urge to go to the toilet
side effects of some medications
not drinking enough fluids
anxiety or depression
Treatments for constipation
Treatment for constipation usually depends on the cause, how long you’ve had it and how bad your symptoms are.
In a lot of cases, it’s possible to relieve symptoms simply by making dietary and lifestyle changes. Here are some tips on how to beat constipation:
Increase your intake of fibre- Try to eat at least 18-30g of fibre a day, including plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and cereals.
Add some bulk to your diet such as wheat bran- This will help to make stools softer and easier to pass.
Avoid dehydration- drink plenty of water, and other sugar-free fluids
Exercise more regularly – for example, by going for a daily walk or run. This will help to stimulate bowel movements.
If constipation is causing pain or discomfort, take a painkiller, such as paracetamol- Don’t take medication such as codeine, as this has side effects which include constipation.
Always use the toilet when you feel the need- delaying your toilet visits can contribute to constipation.
Try resting your feet on a low stool while going to the toilet- This can make passing stools easier.
Ask your GP to review medication you’re taking- It may be causing constipation.
These might be prescribed by your doctor if lifestyle changes don’t help. Laxatives are a type of medicine that help you pass stools more easily. There are different kinds of laxative and each one will have a different effect on your digestive system.
These are usually the first ones that your doctor will try. These help your stools to hold onto fluid so they won’t out and be hard to pass. These laxatives all make your stools softer so they should be easier to pass. When you take this type of laxative, you must drink plenty of fluids, and make sure you don’t take them before going to bed. It will usually be two to three days before you feel the effects of this kind of laxative.
If your stools are still hard after you’ve taken a bulk-forming laxative, your doctor might prescribe an osmotic laxative instead. Osmotic laxatives increase the total amount of fluid in your bowels. This softens your stools and stimulates your body to pass them. As with bulk-forming laxatives, make sure you drink enough fluids when you take these. It will usually be two to three days before you feel the effects of these laxatives.
If your stools are soft, but you have difficulty passing them, your doctor may prescribe a laxative to stimulate your bowel. This type of laxative stimulates the muscles that line your digestive tract, which helps them to move stools and waste products along your large intestine more easily.
These laxatives are usually only used as a short-term measure, and they start to work within 6 to 12 hours of taking them.
How long do you need to use laxatives for?
If you’ve had constipation for a short time, your doctor will probably tell you to stop taking the laxative once your stools are soft and you can visit the toilet easily.
However, if your constipation is caused by an existing medical condition or a medicine you’re taking, you may have to take laxatives for much longer, possibly many months or even years, to manage the effects caused by your condition or the medication you are on.
If you’ve been taking laxatives for some time, you should gradually reduce your dose, rather than coming off them straight away. This can take several months, then your body’s normal bowel function should be restored.
The importance of Yoga to beat constipation
A few minutes of yoga practice each day can help you to beat constipation. It can help stimulate the bowel to make your bowel movements more frequent, prevent you from having to strain on the loo, and reduce bloating.
Yoga helps to revitalise the body and increases the flow of blood and oxygen in the system. Since most of the yoga postures involve movement of the pelvis, regular yoga practice can really help to relieve constipation and other digestive woes.
The best yoga poses for constipation
Here are some of the best yoga poses to relieve constipation and boost overall digestive health:
Sitting half spinal twist pose
This posture stimulates the pancreas, liver, spleen, kidneys, stomach, and ascending and descending colons, so bowel movements are stimulated.
How to do it:
Start in a seated position, bend both knees and place your feet on the floor. Bend the left knee and move your right foot back towards your buttock.
Take the right leg up and over the left thigh so the right foot is near to the left knee. Press both of your sitting bones down into the floor. Draw your lower back slightly in and up, imagine you are lifting the spine up toward the crown of the head. Press the right fingertips into the floor, then inhale and stretch the left arm upward, extending through the fingers.
Exhale and turn the abdomen and chest to the right. Keeping your torso strong and lifted, bring the left elbow to the outside of the right thigh. Push against the thigh while resisting with it to assist in twisting to the right.
Move the left elbow to the outside of the right knee, keeping the left side of the waist lifted and strong. Bring the left armpit as close to the knee as possible, keeping the spine long. Straighten the left arm and reach the hand to the front of the left knee, or if you can, to the right foot. Look over your right shoulder.
Take a deep breath, pulling the lower abdomen into the spine as you breath out. Lift the chest and lengthen the spine as you breathe in, and concentrate on getting more of a twist.
Release the posture on an inhalation, let go of the hands and slowly return the chest to the centre. Unfold your legs, rest in a sitting position then repeat the pose on the other side.
This posture boosts the function of liver and intestine. It is classed as an inversion posture and these postures are known for increasing blood circulation in the pelvic area and boosting digestion.
How to do it:
Lie face up on a soft surface such as a folded blanket or a yoga mat. If you are new to yoga, you might want to use a few blankets. The blankets/mat should be under your back, you should be lying flat, with your shoulders away from your ears. Draw your chin into your chest to lengthen the back of your back.
Draw your knees in toward your chest. Press the palms of your hands firmly into the floor as you extend your feet over your head, straightening your legs. If your toes don’t reach the floor, then keep your hands on your lower back. Take care not to push it more than you feel comfortable doing, because this position places a lot of stress on your shoulders and neck. Keep your head in line with the rest of your spine.
Rest your toes on the floor behind you head, and keep your toes tucked under. To deepen the pose, pull your sitting bones upward as you press through the back of your legs, lengthening the hamstrings. Lift your upper chest towards your chin, which brings the spine more to a vertical position. Bring the palms of your hands together and lock your fingers, then roll further onto the top of your shoulders. Press the outside of the hands against the floor.
To come out of the pose, lower your buttocks to the floor, then use your abdominal muscles to help you slowly lower legs, keeping the back of your head on the floor. Give you neck a bit of a stretch after doing this pose if you need to, especially if your neck and shoulders hold a lot of tension.
You might have guessed from the name that this posture can help to release gas from the body, which is a common complaint if you have constipation. This posture can also help to relieve other digestive disorders, such as acid reflux and indigestion.
How to do it:
Begin by lying on your back, with your legs and arms extended. Exhale, then draw both of your knees to your chest. Clasp your hands around your knees.
While holding only your right knee, release your left leg, and straighten it on the floor. Hold this position for up to one minute.
Draw your left knee back in towards your chest and clasp your hands around both knees again.
While holding only your left knee, release your right leg, and straighten it on the floor. Hold this pose for the same amount of time.
Finally, draw both knees to your chest. Exhale once more, extend both legs and rest.
This posture is a forward bend which helps to improve the digestive system and relieves gas, cramping and bloating. The posture also helps to reduce stress which helps the digestive system to function better.
How to do it:
Start in a seated position, with a straight back, sitting tall. Breathe naturally. Bend both of your knees.
Bring the soles of your feet together and keep the face close to the groin. Grasp the feet firmly with your hands. Keep the feet on the ground.
Make sure the back is straight and you’re sitting tall throughout.
Place your elbows on your thighs.
Inhale deeply and press both the thighs downward with the elbows. Don’t strain or force the movement.
Remove your elbows from the thighs and try to raise the knees. Exhale.
Repeat this 20-30 times, then return to a seated position.