Last week in part one I began the series on the digestive system in the mouth. A very important element of the digestive system where food processing starts.
This week we move down the oesophogus and into the stomach…..
The Digestive System Part Two – The Oesophagus, Acid Reflux and Stomach
We continue the journey through the digestive system – not as exotic as an ocean cruise but far more critical to your health. Back in 1985 we moved to Houston, Texas for two years with my husband’s job. We found an apartment and hooked up to cable TV – and the first thing I saw was a lengthy ad break. Two adverts in particular at each end of this ad break, funnily enough were for Antacids to take before you went out for that dinner to protect you against an acid attack later that night! The ad at the other end of the break was for hemorrhoid cream. Quite an introduction to cable TV! The point however, is that antacids are still being taken routinely as a preventative before a night of excess food and drink which as you will see later in the blog can cause more problems than just a touch of acid.
Anyway on with the journey through the digestive process and I am sure you cannot wait until we get to the intestines!
The oesophagus takes the food down into the stomach by a series of rhythmic contractions of its extremely effective muscles called peristalsis. At the other end of the oesophagus is a sphincter, which opens and closes the opening into the stomach and prevents food from returning upward to the mouth. I have looked at this problem in more detail in diseases connected to the digestive system.
The stomach forms a balloon or sac and is the widest part of the digestive tract. The oesophagus enters through the oesophageal sphincter and exits through the pyloric sphincter at the entrance to the duodenum.
Like most of our organs the stomach is made up of specific layers that play a role either in its physical functionality or its chemical contribution to the digestive process.
The external layer of the stomach consists of layers of muscles lying in longitudinal and circular directions to ensure maximum flexibility and strength. This muscle layer is lined with a membrane called the epithelium housing the gastric glands that will produce gastric juice. This juice is a mixture of acid and enzymes without which we would be unable to process food at all or extract the vital nutrients we require to survive. Normally we would produce in the region of 3 litres of gastric juice a day which is perfect for a normal diet but inadequate for the majority of people who eat in excess of their daily requirements on a regular basis. If food is not processed thoroughly it can lead to complications as it enters the intestines causing constipation and in some cases blockages.
Acid reflux and chronic heartburn
Most of us have experienced heartburn at some point in our lives, usually following a really good night out. Eating a heavy meal especially combined with lots of alcohol is bound to produce some of the more common symptoms of burning sensation in the chest and belching but for many people this digestive problem is a daily occurrence.
The most common cause of heartburn is acid backing up into the oesophagus from the stomach. Normally this would be prevented by a flap, the Lower Oesophageal Sphincter (LES), at the bottom of the digestive tract that allows food into the stomach but prevents partly digested contents from returning back up into the tube.
If it happens occasionally after a particularly heavy meal or too much alcohol then it is not a major problem but if it is happening frequently then you should go to your doctor and ask him to check for any physical reason for the problem.
The most common symptoms are a feeling that food is caught in the throat producing a choking or gagging reflex. The throat might feel tight and there is a burning in the chest, which could be accompanied by difficulty in swallowing and breathing difficulties.
Apart from a faulty oesophageal sphincter there is a possibility of a hiatus hernia. Hiatal or hiatus hernias are also known as diaphragmatic hernias. They occur when the upper part of the stomach is above the diaphragm, the muscle wall that separates the stomach from the chest. When the muscle tissue around the hiatus becomes weak, the upper part of your stomach may bulge through the diaphragm into your chest cavity. The diaphragm helps the LES keep acid from coming up into the oesophagus. So when a hernia is present, it is easier for the acid to come up.
In this way, a hiatus hernia can cause reflux or heartburn.
This malformation can occur in people of any age and most people over 50 have a small one but it is a more common problem in women and anyone who is overweight.
The typical symptoms are a chest pain just below the breast bone that develops over the period of a few minutes. Some say that it mimics what might be a heart attack, usually it will pass in a few minutes but it can last for 15 minutes or longer. It is very painful and if you have been experiencing this regularly then you should go to your doctor to have it checked.
It is more likely to happen after eating a large meal, topped off with a sugar dessert that has increased the acid in your stomach. Lying down is not a good idea as this makes it easier for the acid to build up and push the top of the stomach through the sphincter as the bottom of the oesophogus.
Try pushing down firmly just below the breast bone and if that eases the symptoms it might well be a hiatus hernia.
There are some foods that have been identified as possible triggers for frequent acid reflux and heartburn attacks and these are:
- Citrus fruits (not lemons)
- Caffeine based drinks – such as coffee, tea and soft drinks
- Fried or fatty foods
- Spicy food
- High sugar intake such as a rich dessert after a heavy meal
If you are a long term sufferer of heartburn and acid reflux, then it is a good idea to eliminate all of the above for two to three weeks and see if there is an improvement by monitoring your symptoms carefully and writing them down each day. That way it is easier to identify if there is a particular food outside of these that is causing you a problem.
Eat little and often to prevent overfilling your stomach at any one time and do not drink excessive fluids immediately before or during a meal.
Take a gentle walk after eating and don’t lie down for two to three hours after eating.
This means eating earlier and it might be helpful to lie slightly propped up in bed when sleeping.
A peptic ulcer is a sore or hole in the lining of the stomach or duodenum (the first part of the small intestine). Look away if you are squeamish.
People of any age can get an ulcer and women are affected just as often as men. The major cause of a peptic ulcer is a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H.Pylori) and it is estimated that over 60% of us over the age of 60 have it, in varying strengths, in our stomachs.
The bacteria weaken the protective mucous coating on the walls of the stomach and the duodenum or small intestine. Acid from the stomach is then allowed to reach the delicate lining underneath the mucous where it irritates the tissue causing a sore or ulcer.
H.Pylori secretes an enzyme that neutralises the stomach acid allowing it to survive and reach the lining and its spiral shaped cells are perfect for burrowing through the mucous and tissues.
The most obvious symptom of an ulcer is a dull ache that is usually intermittent and is most noticeable three or four hours after eating a meal. It can occur when the stomach is also empty which is why many sufferers experience an attack in the middle of the night. Often the act of eating will relieve the symptoms particularly if the food is alkaline forming, rather than acidic, and I have put together a list of foods that are either alkaline or alkaline forming in this chapter.
If the problem is not diagnosed and treated then the symptoms can become very much worse with weight loss, bloating, nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite.
It is important that if the pain becomes very sharp and persistent and there is blood in either stool or vomit that you seek emergency treatment immediately as it could indicate that the ulcer has perforated.
Normally if you have H.Pylori it is treated with antibiotics but you can help reduce the efficiency of the bacteria by including anti-bacterial foods and herbs on a daily basis. One of the alternative therapies that I recommend for Candida is grapefruit seed extract and this taken three times a day before food can be effective. Onions, garlic, shitake mushrooms, Aloe Vera and green tea are also excellent.
Raw Cabbage Juice
If you are in for a culinary treat! Raw cabbage juice has quite the reputation for sealing peptic ulcers. I have experimented when I have had acid on a regular basis some time ago, and I have to say worked well. However, because of the potential dangers of a peptic ulcer, if you have severe pains in the stomach, do not hesitate – go straight to the Doctor.
As an alternative to antacids which I will cover later in the post, cabbage juice for me is the preferable option.
If you do not have a juicer, Wash three large cabbage leaves and chop finely, added to half a litre of cold water in a blender – blend well – strain the juice off and keep in fridge. Drink about 6 oz., 30 minutes before eating lunch and dinner. It takes about 3 days for the acid to subside.
The pulp actually is quite tasty with a little seasoning and a bit of butter to go with your dinner….Plenty on the web about cabbage juice so I suggest you explore.
Whilst we all reach for these when we have had a heavy night of eating and drinking, or in some cases before, they should never be taken long term. Even the FDA who can be slow to react to potential hazards issued warnings. There is an increased risk of bone fractures and dementia – antacids are typically made from the following ingredients – Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), calcium carbonate, aluminium hydroxide, magnesium carbonate and/or magnesium hydroxide – some of which can affect bone density and you should be careful if you already have kidney and liver problems.
There are also concerns for over use of antacids in the digestive process. If you reduce your gastric acid below an optimum level, you are going to reduce its digestive efficiency and this means that food is entering the intestines in the wrong consistency – apart from causing intestinal health problems the nutrients will not be extracted at this stage of the process either. This leads to nutritional deficiency and the diseases associated with that.
- For the occasional heartburn, keep some bicarbonate of soda on hand – one teaspoon in warm water.
- I find that drinking peppermint tea between meals helps me but everyone is individual and you will have to experiment with both diet and lifestyle.
Milk is sometimes recommended to line and reduce the acid in the stomach, but after a couple of hours the milk will turn rancid and add to the acid burden.
©sallycronin Just Food for Health 1998 – 2019
A little bit about me nutritionally.
I am a qualified nutritional therapist with twenty years experience working with clients in Ireland and the UK as well as being a health consultant on radio in Spain. Although I write a lot of fiction, I actually wrote my first two books on health, the first one, Size Matters, a weight loss programme 20 years ago, based on my own weight loss of 154lbs. My first clinic was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Since then I have written a men’s health manual, and anti-aging programme, articles for magazines and posts here on Smorgasbord.
If you would like to browse by health books and fiction you can find them here: https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/my-books-and-reviews-2019/
As always delighted to get your feedback and questions. This is not intended to take the place of your doctor’s presence in your life. But, certainly in the UK, where you are allocated ten minutes for a consultation and time is of the essence; going in with some understanding of how your body works and is currently functioning can assist in making a correct diagnosis.
Some doctors believe that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. However, I believe that understanding our bodies, how it works, how we can help prevent health problems and knowing the language that doctors speak, makes a difference. Taking responsibility for our bodies health is the first step to staying well.
Thanks for dropping in and I hope you find useful.. Sally.