Most of the foods we eat are simply too large to be absorbed into our cells. The food molecules are therefore broken down by the process of digestion, the organs that collectively perform this function comprising the digestive system.
The digestive system extends from the mouth to the . It consists of the gastro-intestinal tract and its appendage organs, e.g. salivary glands, the liver and gallbladder, and the pancreas.
Digestion occurs as a result of both physical and chemical processes. The physical changes of food are brought about by grinding, crushing, and mixing the food mass (chyme) with digestive juices during propulsion through the digestive tract. The digestive juices are responsible for the chemical breakdown of chyme. The active compounds in the digestive juices are primarily enzymes.
The small intestine participates in all aspects of digestion, absorption, and transport of ingested materials. It secretes a variety of digestive and protective substances as well as receiving the secretions of the pancreas, liver and gallbladder.
The pancreas produces enzymatic secretions required for the digestion and absorption of food. Each day the pancreas secretes about 2 ½ pints (1 ½ liters) of pancreatic juice into the small intestine. Enzymes secreted include lipases which digest fat, proteases which digest proteins, and amylases which digest starch molecules.
The most effective way to approach disorders in digestion is to strengthen the body’s natural ability to digest food. Often the digestive system can be sabotaged by using added enzymes, laxatives and excess fiber. These can act like a “crutch” and actually cause the body to become weaker in this area. Examples of foods which support this process are papaya, spearmint, peppermint, ginger and other natural foods. Although it is helpful to eat foods like this at a meal, it is often difficult to do this. When these foods are available in concentrated form in a capsule, they can be eaten more easily and more often.
If the body does not respond to this natural approach quickly enough a suitable alternative to the use of antacids in the treatment of indigestion is the use of herbal bitters. Bitters are believed to work by stimulating digestion as a result of activating the bitter-taste receptors on the tongue. Stimulation of bitter-taste receptors activates a number of digestive processes including the secretion of digestive juices.
If necessary in the beginning stages or on a continuing basis if the problem persists digestion may be improved by using digestants, which by definition are compounds which aid in digestive function. Commonly used digestants include hydrochloric acid and pancreatic enzyme preparations.
Pancreatin refers to preparations of pancreatic enzymes isolated from fresh hog pancreas. Pancreatin is most often employed in the treatment of pancreatic insufficiency characterized by impaired digestion, malabsorption, nutrient deficiencies and abdominal discomfort.
Bromelain, the protein digesting enzyme found in pineapple, is useful as an aid to protein digestion. Bromelain is quite effective as a substitute for pancreatic enzymes in the treatment of pancreatic insufficiency, but best results are obtained if it is use in combination with pancreatin and ox bile.
Papain is a protein-digesting enzyme isolated from the unripe papaya fruit. It is often used alone and in formulas as a digestive aid.
Proper digestion is a requirement for optimum health, and incomplete or disordered digestion can be a major contributor to the development of many diseases. The problem is not only that ingestion of foods and nutritional substances are of little benefit when breakdown and assimilation are inadequate, but also that incompletely digested food molecules can be inappropriately absorbed into the systemic circulation. This can lead to various diseases and the development of food allergies.
Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Michael Murray, Joseph Pizzorno. Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA. (C) 1991. Pages 50-56