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, and nutrients are extracted to help our body perform at its best.
- 1 Digestion
- 1.1 Carbohydrates
- 1.2 Protein
- 1.3 Fats
- 1.4 Vitamins
- 1.5 How does digestion work?
- 1.6 How does food move through the digestive tract?
- 1.7 Oesophagus
- 1.8 Stomach
- 1.9 Small intestine
- 1.10 Large intestine
- 1.11 Digestive problems
- 1.12 The most common complaints are:
- 1.13 Medicines can cause digestive problems
- 1.14 When to see your doctor
- 1.15 Common digestive complaints
- 1.16 Heartburn
- 1.17 Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- 1.18 Constipation
- 1.19 Indigestion
- 1.20 Symptoms of indigestion
- 1.21 What causes indigestion?
- 1.22 These things can also make indigestion worse:
- 1.23 Medication
- 1.24 Smoking and alcohol
- 1.25 Stress or anxiety
- 1.26 Treating indigestion
- 1.27 Diet and lifestyle changes
- 1.28 Lose weight if you’re overweight.
- 1.29 Smoking can also contribute to indigestion.
- 1.30 Changing medication
- 1.31 Get relief from indigestion
- 1.32 Antacids
- 1.33 Persistent indigestion
- 1.34 Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)
- 1.35 H2-receptor antagonists
- 1.36 Home remedies for indigestion
- 1.37 Apple Cider Vinegar
- 1.38 Fennel Seeds
- 1.39 Ginger
- 1.40 Baking Soda
- 1.41 Carom Seeds
- 1.42 Herbal Tea
- 1.43 Cumin
- 1.44 Coriander
- 1.45 Basil Leaves
- 1.46 Cinnamon
Digestion breaks down the food we eat into nutrients, which the body needs for energy, growth, and cell repair. Foods and liquids are broken down into smaller molecules of nutrients before being absorbed into the blood and carried 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 being 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. You should try to minimise foods with added sugars where possible. Complex carbohydrates are the starches and fibre which are found in whole-grain breads and cereals, starchy vegetables, and legumes. These are the best types of carbohydrates to eat for health.
Foods such as meat, eggs, and beans are rich in protein. The body breaks them down into smaller molecules called amino acids. The body absorbs the amino acids through the small intestine and carries them into the blood, which then carries them into the body’s cells.
Fat molecules are a rich source of energy for the body and they also help the body to absorb some 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, and they should be kept to a minimum. 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. As with any nutrient, your body simply takes what it needs and gets rid of the excess.
How does digestion work?
Digestion begins in the mouth with the process of chewing and ends in the small intestine. As food passes through the digestive tract, it mixes with digestive juices, which break 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, and then they are carried to the rest of the body. Waste products of digestion pass through the large intestine and out of the body as solid waste called stool.
How does food move through the digestive tract?
There is a layer of smooth muscle that allows the walls of the digestive organs to move. This movement is called peristalsis, and it pushes 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 then absorb nutrients into the bloodstream. The blood then delivers the nutrients to the rest of the body where they are needed.
The waste products of the digestive process, such as undigested bits of food and old 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. This is then passed out of the body.
Digestive problems like constipation, diarrhoea, heartburn, and bloating are very common and are usually treated with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter remedies.
About 40% of people have a digestive problem at any one time, according to experts.
The most common complaints are:
changes in bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhoea
Medicines can cause digestive problems
Look at any medications you might be taking if you have digestive problems as these might be upsetting your tummy.
Avoid aspirin and medicines used to treat arthritis, known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs if you get indigestion. Paracetamol is a good alternative.
Some painkillers, especially opiates, iron tablets, and cough medicines can cause constipation and some people get diarrhoea while taking antibiotics or blood pressure medication. Talk to your doctor if you think that medications are causing your digestive problems.
When to see your doctor
Digestive symptoms are usually nothing serious and often resolve themselves but sometimes they don’t go away and they can be a sign of something more serious.
If your symptoms persist for over 2 weeks, see your doctor. You should also see a doctor without delay for these symptoms:
a sudden change in bowel habits
bleeding from your bottom
Heartburn or stomach pain that gets worse
Unexplained weight loss
Common digestive complaints
Heartburn is one of the most common digestive complaints. People who get heartburn commonly suffer from a burning sensation in the chest, a bitter taste in the mouth, and a sore throat. Heartburn is generally not serious, though if it occurs alongside vomiting and weight loss, it may be a sign of something more serious.
Changes in lifestyle are the first line of treatment doctors will suggest. They will usually tell you to:
Refrain from eating or drinking 3 hours before bed
Eat 3-4 small meals during the day rather than a large dinner or lunch
Lose weight if you are overweight
Quit smoking, as it can aggravate heartburn
Use antacids after a meal, before bed, and as often as you need to
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome is one of the most common conditions seen by doctors. Symptoms usually include gas, bloating, flatulence, and loose stools. The condition can be uncomfortable, but is generally not serious unless it is accompanied by bleeding or weight loss. It may be linked to food intolerances or stress.
Constipation is caused by a lack of exercise, poor hydration, poor diet, and a low fibre intake. You have constipation if you have hard, dry stools that are difficult to pass.
Indigestion is a common term for pain and discomfort in the stomach. It can occur on its own or with heartburn. In most cases, indigestion is mild and occurs only occasionally.
Symptoms of indigestion
As well as heartburn, other common symptoms of indigestion include:
feeling uncomfortably full or bloated
These symptoms can occur soon after eating or drinking, though they can occur a few hours after eating too.
What causes indigestion?
Indigestion usually occurs after eating. When you eat, your stomach produces acid. The acid can irritate the lining of your stomach, or the oesophagus.
This can be painful and causes a burning sensation. Your stomach can also stretch after eating a big meal, which causes acid reflux.
These things can also make indigestion worse:
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, can irritate your digestive tract and cause indigestion.
Don’t take these if you have stomach problems, such as a stomach ulcer, or you’ve had similar problems in the past.
Smoking and alcohol
The chemicals in cigarette smoke can contribute to indigestion. They cause the muscle between the oesophagus and stomach to relax, which can cause acid reflux.
Drinking excessive alcohol can also increase your risk of indigestion. Alcohol causes your stomach to produce more acid, which irritates your stomach lining.
Stress or anxiety
Stress or anxiety can sometimes contribute to indigestion.
Treatment for indigestion will depend on the causes and severity of symptoms.
Many people manage indigestion by making lifestyle changes or taking over the counter medications.
Diet and lifestyle changes
Lose weight if you’re overweight.
Avoid foods that make indigestion worse, such as rich, spicy, and fatty foods. Caffeinated drinks, such as tea, coffee, and cola, as well as alcohol, can also contribute to indigestion.
Smoking can also contribute to indigestion.
If you experience indigestion at night, refrain from eating for 3-4 hours prior to bed.
If you suffer from stomach acid, prop your head and shoulders up or raise the head of your bed a few inches.
The medication you are taking may be causing indigestion. If you think that this is the case, speak to your doctor about alternatives.
Get relief from indigestion
If you need immediate relief from indigestion, you can try these medicines:
Antacids can provide immediate relief for mild to moderate indigestion.
They neutralise stomach acid, so it is less likely to irritate the lining of your stomach.
Antacids are available in tablet and liquid form, and you can buy them from pharmacies and some supermarkets.
The effect of an antacid only lasts for a few hours at a time, so you may need to take them fairly regularly. Always read the label for advice on dosage.
Take antacids as soon as you feel indigestion starting to occur, whether it’s after meals, or at bedtime.
If you have persistent or recurring indigestion, antacids might not be potent enough.
Your doctor might recommend stronger drugs to control your symptoms. Medications they might suggest include:
Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)
Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) reduce acid production in your stomach. They are taken as tablets and are usually only available on prescription.
H2-receptor antagonists are another type of medication that your doctor may suggest if all other treatments have failed to control your symptoms. You will see these drugs labelled as cimetidine, famotidine, nizatidine, or ranitidine. They work by lowering the level of acid in your stomach.
Home remedies for indigestion
Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is often used to promote healthy digestion, and though it’s acidic, it has an alkalising effect in the body, and helps to treat indigestion. Try this:
Add a tablespoon of raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar to a cup of water.
Mix in one teaspoon of raw honey to sweeten the taste.
Drink the mixture 2-3 times per day for indigestion relief.
Fennel seeds can be very helpful for indigestion caused by eating spicy or fatty foods. Fennel seeds contain oils that can help to reduce nausea and gas. Try this:
Dry roast, grind, and sieve fennel seeds. Take ½ a teaspoon with water. Do this twice per day.
You can also drink fennel tea, made by brewing 2 teaspoons of crushed seeds in some hot water.
You can also simply chew a spoonful of seeds to relieve indigestion.
Ginger stimulates digestive juices and enzymes that help to digest your food. This makes ginger an effective remedy for indigestion, especially when it has been caused by eating too much.
Try sprinkling some salt on fresh ginger slices and chew it thoroughly after eating a heavy meal.
You can also take 2 teaspoons of ginger juice, 1 teaspoon of lemon juice, and a pinch of table salt. Mix the ingredients well and consume it with or without water.
Another option to try is adding 2 teaspoons of ginger juice and 1 teaspoon of honey to a cup of warm water and drinking it.
You can also make some homemade ginger tea to get relief from bloating, cramps, gas and stomach pains. To make ginger tea, boil a teaspoon of grated ginger in a cup of water for 5 to 10 minutes.
Adding ginger to your cooking can also help relieve indigestion.
Indigestion often occurs when there is a high level of stomach acid. Baking soda is one of the most effective treatments for this, because it acts like a natural antacid. Try this:
Stir ½ teaspoon of baking soda into ½ a glass of water. Drink the mixture to neutralise the acid in your stomach and give you relief from bloating and discomfort.
Carom seeds contain compounds that can help treat indigestion, flatulence, and diarrhoea. Try this:
Grind together some carom seeds and dried ginger into a fine powder. Add 1 teaspoon of the powder and some black pepper to a cup of warm water and drink it. Do this 1-2 times per day.
You can also eat ½ teaspoon of carom seeds to relieve indigestion.
Drinking herbal tea after eating a heavy meal can relieve indigestion. Dip your chosen herbal tea bag into a hot cup of water and allow it to brew for 5 minutes. Drink it while it is still warm.
Peppermint tea and chamomile tea are known to aid digestion, and they can help to relieve digestive discomfort.
Cumin has long been used as a remedy for digestive problems including indigestion, nausea, diarrhoea, and flatulence. It stimulates the production of enzymes that aid digestion. Try this:
Mix a teaspoon of roasted cumin seed powder in a glass of water and drink it.
If you are suffering with a bloated or heavy feeling in your stomach, add ¼ teaspoon each of roasted cumin seed powder and black pepper to a glass of milk and drink it 2-3 times per day for a few days.
Coriander is an effective remedy for indigestion as it promotes the production of digestive enzymes and helps to soothe the stomach. Try this:
Add 1 teaspoon of roasted coriander seed powder to a glass of milk and drink it once or twice per day.
To reduce acidity in the stomach, extract the juice from some fresh coriander leaves and mix a teaspoon of the juice in a cup of milk. Drink it 2-3 times per day.
Basil is an excellent remedy for indigestion and acid reflux. It can also help to relieve intestinal gas. Try this:
Add 1 teaspoon of basil to a cup of hot water and let it brew for 10 minutes. Drink up to 3 cups of the tea per day.
You can also try mixing 5 or 6 ground basil leaves, ¼ teaspoon of sea salt and a little black pepper powder in 2 to 3 tablespoons of plain yogurt. Consume it 2 or 3 times per day.
Cinnamon can be excellent for indigestion. It helps to relieve cramps and bloating. Try this:
Make a cup of cinnamon tea by adding 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon powder to a cup of boiling water and allowing it to brew for a few minutes.
Drink it while it is still warm.