Project 101 Resilience – The Digestive System – And Immune System

As humans we are reliant on our immune system to keep us healthy from opportunistic pathogens that try to force their way in to our bodies, and to prevent our own cells going rogue and causing serious diseases.

But our immune systems are only as good as we, the hosts, make them. They require very specific nutrients to fuel the reactions needed to protect us and if we have a rubbish diet with too much sugar and additives from man-made foods, we will find that when we need protection it is not there.

It is our responsibility to make sure it gets what it needs and understanding how this complex system works is a good start.

The Digestive System – It begins in the mouth.

As the purpose of these blogs is to offer you an overview of the body, I am not going to attempt to give you all the specifics about this complex and fascinating process. However, it does serve to illustrate the knock-on effect on our overall health if one part of the operating system, or chemical process, is damaged and off-line for a period of time.

Actually the digestive process starts in the nasal passages – remember how it feels to smell fresh baked bread, the BBQ or a curry. The saliva starts to build up in your mouth – which is why we call it ‘mouth-watering’. As soon as that process begins – we are ready to eat and digest the food. Interestingly enough, people who have a reduced or non-existent ability to smell rarely become obese!

The mouth

The mouth is much larger than we would imagine from an external view and it contains the tongue and the teeth behind the entrance, which is guarded by the lips and mouth. At the rear of the mouth are the various tubes leading to the lungs or the rest of the digestive tract.

There are two palates within the mouth, the hard and soft palates. The hard palate to the front of the roof of the mouth is used by the tongue to mix and soften food whilst the soft palate (velum) can expand to allow food to pass back into the oesophagus without being forced up into the nasal passages.

The cheeks and soft tissues of the mouth are covered in a mucous membrane that keeps the mouth moist helped by the salivary glands. This membrane is one of the most vulnerable to wear and tear in the body and has remarkable powers of regeneration.

The tongue

The tongue is triangular, wider at the base than at the tip. It is attached at the base to the lower jaw and to the hyoid bone of the skull. At the sides of the base it is attached to the pharynx which is the cavity at the back of the mouth. The top of the tongue is curved and is home to our taste buds, the front is called the apex and the back of the tongue is called the dorsum.

The tongue is very flexible and is controlled by a complex set of muscles both in the tongue itself and also in the jaw and neck. The styloglossus muscle in the neck is responsible for the upward and backward movement of the tongue and the hyoglossus also in the neck brings it back down into the normal resting position.

Of course one of the main functions of the tongue is its involvement in our speech and its health is therefore vital. Without it our ability to process food in the mouth and to talk would be virtually non-existent.

Food has to be chewed before it is presented to the rest of the digestive tract. The tongue will roll the food around the mouth so that the teeth can begin the process of breaking it down into manageable pieces.

The teeth

The teeth are very necessary to our digestive process as food needs to be in small enough pieces to pass through the oesophagus into the stomach and also to allow enzymes adequate access to the last crumb. If it is a large chunk of food it will not be processed efficiently and we will lose much of the benefit.

We have two sets of teeth in our lifetime and how we look after the first set can have an effect on the health of the second and adult teeth. I was a dental nurse and in the 60’s we began to see the effect of increased sugars particularly in soft drinks on children’s teeth. My boss who was then in his 60’s was horrified in the difference that had taken place in only 20 or 30 years. As children we have 20 milk teeth that develop from small root structures under the gum at birth appearing around 9 months old to around 6 years old when they are pushed out by the 32 adult teeth as they begin to erupt. The second teeth can be affected by diet when they are still beneath the gums and this can lead to a lifetime of fillings and extractions.

All our teeth have specific roles in digestion and we are given enough so that as we age and lose a few we can still have the ability to process food. Of course in the last hundred years or so we have got very clever and can now replace teeth with dentures or better still implant new artificial teeth into the jaw that last around 15 to 20 years depending on the material used.

The incisors are designed to cut and the pointed canines are perfect for tearing foods such as meat and plant food apart. Our premolars and molars towards the back of the mouth can grind and crush other foods such as nuts, seeds and if necessary even bone.

Teeth are firmly fixed in sockets in the upper and lower jaw by a root system that may have one or two roots depending on tooth type and its role. Gum surrounds the tooth to help protect from decay and act as a buffer while the teeth work on food several times a day for our lifetime. The outer surface is enamel, which is one of the hardest substances in the human body and beneath this is dentine a pulp that protects the sensitive nerve and blood system in the middle of the tooth.

One of the key elements of efficient digestion is how we chew our food. Most of us eat far too quickly, not allowing the teeth to produce small enough pieces of food or our saliva and enzymes to carry out their part in the process.

Chewing slowly has the added benefit of allowing a message to get through from the stomach to the brain to tell it that you are full and to stop eating. This not only helps us maintain a healthy weight but it also reduces the stress and pressure on the digestive system.

N.B – If you have elderly relatives it is important to make sure that they have regular dental care and if they have dentures they fit properly. The inability to chew food means that they will tend to drop certain foods from their diet and begin to suffer from nutrient deficiencies, particular B vitamins that are in whole grains and meats.

The salivary glands –

The salivary glands at the base of the tongue produce an enzyme called ptyalin that digests starch and a chemical called Lysozyme that sanitises the food to prevent infection both in the mouth and the digestive tract. It is hard to believe but the human adult will produce in the region of 1½ litres of saliva per day consisting of mucous and fluid. It is important that the mouth is kept very moist not only for comfort but to enable us to deal with dry foods allowing it to be chewed more easily. It is also essential once food has been chewed, to ease the next stage of the digestive process when food is swallowed.

There are a number of salivary glands positioned in the mouth the largest being the parotids, in the neck, just in front of the ears. The glands that excrete the most saliva are under the jaw. These are the submandibular glands. And finally, under the tongue in the floor of the mouth are the sublinguals. The amylase enzyme produced by these glands converts the carbohydrate we eat into disaccharide sugars for further processing later in the stomach and intestines. (If you want to witness this in action, wave a cooked sausage in front of a dog’s nose and place their jaw over a basin!)

The pharynx

I looked at the respiratory role of the pharynx in the blogs on lungs, but it also is a channel for food. Its upper parts are connected to the nose and the mouth and lower part is connected to the voice box or larynx and leads to the oesophagus for swallowing.

We have all choked on food at one time or another and the reason for this natural and instinctive action is the epiglottis, the flap that prevents food and foreign particles from entering the lungs.

When we swallow this flap tilts backward and the larynx rises up. The cartilage bands around the larynx called the vocal cords come together and close the flap to seal off the entrance to the trachea. As soon as the food has passed safely into the oesophagus on its way to the stomach the epiglottis re-opens to allow air into the windpipe again.

The Digestive system Part Two – The Oesophagus, Acid Reflux and the 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 post 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

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

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.

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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.

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
  • Onions
  • 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.

Peptic ulcer

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.

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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.

If you are in for a culinary treat! Raw cabbage juice has quite the reputation for sealing peptic ulcers. I have tried for acid 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 in a moment, cabbage juice for me is the preferable option.

Recipe.

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.

Antacids.

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.

The Liver – The largest waste organ in the body

In the last two posts, I have worked my way through the digestive system from the mouth, down the oesophagus and into the stomach, (not literally of course) but there are some important organs within that system that deserve some personal attention on the way. One of those is the Liver which carries out the important task of ridding our body of toxins and storing essential nutrients for our health.

I remember a teenage client who wondered what all the fuss was about – you could get a transplant couldn’t you? I set him the task of researching the actual operation, first hand accounts of those who had undergone this major operation and the long lasting implications and side effects. Hasten to say he was a lot less cocky about the process on his next appointment.

I have met people who believe that as long as you give up smoking and drinking before you are 40 you will be absolutely fine! Yes, there are individuals who drink like a fish and live to 95 and some of them even smoked too. They also did not have the benefit of our high sugar modern diet and lack of exercise! I also would be tempted to ask them to pick my lottery numbers each week because they are the fortunate ones.

For the rest of us, the earlier we put some thought into the long term care of our major organs the better. I will admit that I was in my late 30’s before I woke up to this fact when given some rather indigestible truths about my prognosis. But better late than never.

Part of that care comes from understanding the how, what and where an organ’s role is in our body and health.

Where is the liver?

Liver in Torso

Surprisingly the liver is the largest of our internal organs and in fact it is the size of a large melon. Mainly in the upper right side of your abdomen it lies beneath the diaphragm just above your stomach. Higher up in the chest than people imagine which is important when determining symptoms such as pain.

What does the liver do?

The liver is a multi-tasking organ, capable of around 500 functions. Before you put rubbish in your mouth, think about the liver as your best friend. Is it going to be happy when this jumbo hotdog, salad cream, on a white bread roll with margarine, onions cooked in lard and the reconstituted chips with lots of salt and large blueberry muffin with a 16oz diet soda hits the system!! Everything you consume including all the preservatives, toxins, lousy fats, drugs, excess sugar will pass through this portal…..

Liver

The liver has two essential roles – making or processing chemicals and eliminating toxins and waste. Without this portal system none of the nutrients that we have carefully processed and passed in the intestines could be carried in the blood, through the liver to nourish the body and give us energy.

The liver is the organ but the work horses are the millions and millions of cells it holds.

Specialist cells, hepatocytes deal with the raw materials our body runs on – proteins, carbohydrates and fats. We are made of protein and we need to consume high quality protein to renew our cells and create new ones – in its raw state some proteins are not accepted by the body and the role of the liver’s cells is to change the format so that it is usable. Any waste from the liver cell’s processes is not passed back into the blood stream but stored for elimination. Similarly with carbohydrates, the liver cells will convert the carbs into appropriate fuel that can be easily accessed by the body for energy.

Kuppfer cells

The waste disposal cells in the liver are called Kuppfer cells, after the man who discovered them – they are the Dysons of the cell fraternity, sucking up bacteria and toxins before handing over to the hepacytes for processing. This means that the liver is incredibly important for your immune system. The liver also stores iron as well as other vitamins and minerals you need such as B12 and the organ makes clotting factors that stop bleeding after injury.

One of the key roles of the liver in cholesterol management – In spite of an effort to demonise cholesterol it is very important to appreciate the vital roles that it performs in the body. Cholesterol is vital to our digestive system, in that it forms the base for bile acids that are used to emulsify fat in the small bowel so that fat and fat soluble vitamins like E and K can be absorbed…

I treat my liver as the guardian of my health and if you take care of this organ first you will find that will have a very beneficial effect on the optimum balance of LDL and HDL cholesterol in your blood.

There has been a focus in the last 10 years on reducing heart disease and the first line for that focus has been reducing cholesterol. In fact one of the suggestions made by the health service is that all men over 50 and many women should be put on Statins to reduce not just the unhealthy cholesterol but the healthy kind.

As you will see in this post.. that would appear to be rather extreme considering the role that cholesterol plays in the body.

Cholesterol – An essential substance our bodies need

I respect and manage my cholesterol levels because without it there are certain vital functions in my body that would not happen.

I am rather attached to my steroidal hormones, including the sterol Vitamin D, (thinks it’s a hormone), that keeps me happy in the winter and free of colds and flu, and my bones strong by regulating calcium in my blood.

And others such as cortisol, there when I need it, and DHEA, very important for my bone density now I am in my 60’s, as well as helping keeping me young and remembering what happened yesterday.

I was grateful for my progesterone in my younger days that kept my periods more or less regular, and for the oestrogen that developed me into the woman I was and remain today.

I am also hoping that my cholesterol, which is very important for my eyesight, will prevent me from developing cataracts in my 70’s and 80’s. Also help to prevent the development of dementia, and keeping me active until a ripe old age.

Sound flippant? A little yes, but not so flippant as the suggestion that everyone over the age of 50, whatever their current cholesterol readings should be given Statins or other cholesterol lowering drugs. My opinion is that the NHS has given up trying to educate its clients into adopting a healthier diet and exercising. Instead it is going with the mass medication option, because they say it will prevent cardiovascular disease and dementia down the line.

Quite frankly, they are terrified – they have an aging population- who are going to be more likely to develop heart disease, cancer, and dementia simply because the natural process is deterioration. However, without the protection of healthy forms of cholesterol many functions in the body are compromised including brain health and our sex drive.

What is ‘flippantly’ ignored is that cholesterol is not some demon substance that has invaded our bodies and is rampaging out of control through our blood stream, but essential to our fundamental health and well-being. There are a number of people who are genetically prone to cholesterol health issues, and of course then, medication may be the right decision, but it should never be something that is given to all.

There are some lifestyle and dietary changes that we can all make to make sure that the cholesterol in our bodies is getting on with its job and not causing us health problems, but before I move onto the solutions, I would like to spend a little exploring the reasons for the interactions that are taking place in the body and resulting in clogged arteries.

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I admit that I do use the term lousy cholesterol for low density lipoprotein – because this is the one that can get contaminated and cause health problems. Although when talking about cholesterol, we refer to high density lipoprotein, and very low density lipoproteins (not usually in substantial amounts) as well, they are all the same molecularly, but have different packaging to be transported in the blood stream.

HDL and LDL sub divide into different types of lipoproteins and at the moment more is still to be discovered about this. The LDL is associated with the plaque that forms in the arteries leading to blockages – the smaller the size of the LDL particles, the more you are likely to develop coronary disease, than if the particles are larger and less dense. There is a theory that if the walls of the arteries are damaged in any way, the smaller and denser particles of the LDL can push their way through that break in the tissue and start clumping together to form the plaque, whilst the larger HDL particles would not gain purchase.

In essence then, whilst the LDL cholesterol does have a role in the body there are strong indications that if there is already weakness in the artery it will attract the smaller particles that will then clump forming the harmful plaque leading to coronary disease. There is another problem with LDL cholesterol which is oxidation – this is where the particles react with free radicals, produced through a number of activities, including smoking and eating a diet high in white fat, as found in processed foods, crisps, pastries and cookies.

Because the liver is such a complex organ there are over 100 diseases that can affect its health.

We tend to associate liver damage with conditions resulting from drinking to much, such as alcoholic hepatitis or the viral infections, Hepatitis A and the more dangerous serum Hepatitis B.

Hep A is transmitted from contaminated food and water, and Hep B from sexual contact, infected needles or contaminated blood products. Some diseases of the liver are hereditary and are usually diagnosed in a baby or young toddler. These include Alagille syndrome, Alpha 1-Antitrypsin deficiency, autoimmune hepatitis, the result of an abnormal immune system at birth, Galactosemia, Wilson’s disease – the abnormal storage of copper – and Haemochromatosis – the abnormal storage of iron.

There are also the dangers of long term medication. As with everything else we ingest, the medication also needs to go through the liver to be processed. This also applies to extensive exposure to chemicals in a home or work environment. Both are likely to overwork the liver and cause damage.

It is obvious that hereditary conditions and viral infections require treatment by medical experts. What we are concerned with is the general health of the liver to prevent damage and to improve function by making some adjustments to our lifestyles.

What is cirrhosis of the liver?

Cirrhosis occurs when scar tissue replaces dead or injured liver cells. It is caused by disease, or more commonly alcoholism and increasingly the ingestion of processed foods and drinks containing high levels of refined sugars. The scarring distorts the normal structure and re-growth of liver cells and the flow of blood through the liver, from the intestines, is blocked. This restricts the functions carried out by the liver, such as processing proteins or toxins.

This in turn can lead to other medical problems such as gallstones, toxicity and fluid retention in the legs and abdomen. Because the liver produces proteins that help clot the blood, damage can lead to excessive or prolonged bleeding – both internally and from cuts and injuries.

There is no cure for cirrhosis but the spread of the scarring can be stopped, and improvement in the health of the liver achieved in most cases, if the original cause of the damage is removed: – For example, by stopping drinking alcohol, reducing drastically the consumption of processed drinks and foods and eating a natural unprocessed diet of healthy fats, vegetables and fruits.

We also associate severe liver problems with older people who have spent a lifetime indulging across the board. However, more and more teenagers and young adults are presenting with liver damage. The cause is not excessive alcohol but excessive consumption of soft drinks containing sugars, acid and artificial sweeteners and a reliance on the ‘white diet’. White carbohydrates, unhealthy manufactured fats and refined sugars such as high fructose corn syrup.

How do we help the liver cope with everyday pressures?

Whilst alcohol certainly plays a role in the development of cirrhosis you do not have to be a chronic alcoholic to get the disease. The good news is that alcoholic hepatitis does not necessarily lead to cirrhosis of the liver, and certainly not to the extent where a transplant is required. It can take many years of dedicated drinking to reach that stage, but that will depend on the person.

No one person is the same and I often quote the saying “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”. We are all unique and this applies to our internal operating systems as well. I am sure that we have been to parties and watched one person have two glasses of wine and be as drunk as a lord and someone else down drink after drink without any apparent affect. That is to say that from the outside they look okay but of course their liver may be telling a different story.

As we get older we understand that the aftermath of a drinking session is unpleasant in the extreme and the effects can last a couple of days – unfortunately some of the remedies add to the strain on the liver- especially frequent use of over the counter pain medication. Hopefully most of us adapt to a more moderate approach.

Unfortunately that is not at times with the young. Like the latest online drinking crazes such as Neknomination – which has already resulted in the death of several young people in the UK. Alcohol poisoning is not a game. Commonly, patients requiring treatment for liver disease were in their 50’s and 60’s. There are now people in their 20’s and 30’s being diagnosed with chronic liver damage and some are on the transplant list!

How can we help ourselves?

Like many internal organs, the liver has a primary purpose in life and that is for the host body to survive. It will struggle daily to cope with excessive stress and harmful contaminants and it is often only when it is in the final stages of disease that we see the external evidence for ourselves. The early symptoms can be hard to spot but generally there will be consistent nausea, intestinal upsets, fatigue and loss of appetite. If these symptoms are ignored then more dangerous symptoms will develop including signs of jaundice which results in yellowing of the whites of the eyes and a yellow tint to the skin.

Also bloated abdomen, confusion leading to coma and possible death. If you are experiencing any of the early signs then do go and get checked out by your doctor.

Generally speaking, drinking more than two or three drinks per day is going to affect your liver to some degree. Binge drinking at the weekend is something we are all guilty of from time to time. We do not have a drink all week and then on the weekend we go out for a meal or have friends around enjoying pre-dinner drinks and a few glasses of wine followed by a couple or more liqueurs. This is a binge as far as your liver is concerned, particularly if it is accompanied by a rich meal full of fats and proteins that require processing.

As I have already stated, soft drinks have their dangers – and certainly there has been a worrying increase in the number of teenagers from as early at 11 years old exhibiting signs of liver damage. In America where you have been able to buy 24oz fizzy drinks – or receive them free as part of a fast food meal – this trend is more than worrying. The main culprit is high fructose corn syrup the main component of soft drinks.

I am not going to go into detail as there is an interesting and thought provoking article that every parent should read and if not a parent then those of you who are consuming even moderate amounts of certain soft drinks and eating processed foods. Reasons High Fructose Corn Syrup will kill you

The liver, like the rest of the body, needs antioxidants to prevent oxidative damage. A diet high in processed foods is not only going to give the liver even more work to do, processing additives and excess chemicals such as phosphorus, but is also not going to give it the raw materials it requires for its own health.

I am afraid that we women are more likely to suffer liver damage, as we tend to have a higher concentration of alcohol in our blood. We have more body fat and less water than a man does so we handle booze differently. Even if we do not drink we can still cause damage to our liver by having a very high-fat diet. The liver again is overworked and whilst a moderate intake of fats is necessary for the nutrients it contains, it needs to be part of a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables, fruit and whole grains that all work with the fat in harmony.

I often caution against deleting a food group from our diet as we are programmed to take the essential nutrients from across the board.

Carbohydrates have their role in this, but white, high fat and sugary processed foods are not carbohydrates, they are cardboard.

Eat whole grains every day – if you have a gluten intolerance or find wheat hard to digest then brown rice, corn and organic oats may suit you.

So whilst many of us focus on our heart health – that organ is affected by the health of the liver, which removes toxins from our body to prevent the storage of these poisons in every cell including those in the heart.

The Pancreas, Gallbladder and the Intestines.

We are reaching the end of our journey through the labyrinth that is our digestive system. Today the intestines, but also a couple of glands that are essential to the process itself. I hope you have enjoyed the trip and if you were new to the scenery, found it useful.

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The small intestine

The small intestine is made up of three parts, the duodenum at the entrance, the jejunum and the ileum.

The duodenum is joined to the stomach and receives the highly acidic mix that has now been produced by the gastric juices. There is a danger that the duodenum would be eaten away by this acid so it secretes a thick mucus to protect itself. Within the layers of the duodenum are also glands that produce an alkaline juice to neutralise the acid and provide the enzymes to continue the digestive process. Because of the corrosive effect of the hydrochloric acid in the food at this point, the cells in the mucus membrane replicate faster than anywhere else in the body. At this point bile and pancreatic juices join the mix and the food moves about 10 inches down into the jejunum where nutrients are absorbed into the blood stream before the remaining liquid is passed into the ileum and then onto the colon for excretion.

The pancreas

The pancreas is one of the largest glands in the body and its main role is the secretion of hormones including insulin (when there are raised sugar levels in the blood), glucagon (when there is lower sugar levels in the blood) which maintains a normal balance. Also pancreatic enzymes, which are vital for effective digestion.

It lies across the top of the abdomen, below the liver and tucked into the duodenum section of the small intestine.

The pancreas is made up of cells (acinar cells) that secrete into small ducts that connect together until they feed pancreatic juices into a main duct running through the centre of the gland which feeds directly into the duodenum. The pancreatic juice contains not only the enzymes needed to breakdown carbohydrates, proteins and fats but also sodium bicarbonate to help neutralise the acid.

Within the acinar cells are Alpha and Beta cells that produce insulin and glucagon respectively. These are taken from the pancreas via the Mesenteric vein into the blood stream where they will balance blood sugar levels.

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The gallbladder

The gallbladder is a small pear shaped muscular structure on the underside of the liver on the right of the abdomen. It is attached to the common bile duct, which connects the liver to the duodenum, by the sphincter of Oddi. Excess bile leaves the bile duct at the cystic duct and is then stored and concentrated in the gallbladder until needed. Bile is used in the digestion of fats as they pass through the duodenum and is then either excreted or absorbed back into the bloodstream.

Gallstones and other gallbladder problems can be painful, but they also impact the digestion of fats. If you have the following symptoms regularly then you should consult your doctor.

  • An excruciating pain across the chest below the sternum that lasts for 15 minutes or so.
  • Within an hour of eating a fatty meal including meats, cheese, rich sauces or having lashings of butter on bread or vegetables, you have an urgent need to visit the bathroom and you have cramps.
  • Your bowel movement is light tan in colour.
  • Some people may experience nausea

Apart from gallstones, a gallbladder can calcify with hundreds of very small stones inside. This prevents the drip feed of bile to digest the fat you have eaten. Instead there will be a rush of bile from the liver, resulting in the sudden need to get rid of anything in your intestines.

The colon

By the time the digested food (chyme) has reached the colon all the nutrients should have been absorbed leaving a mixture of insoluble fibre and assorted waste products from the body’s operating systems mixed with water.

The Colon is the last part of the 30 foot alimentary canal and is used to remove excess water and solidify waste products before they are excreted from the body. It is a muscular tube, which moves the waste in a series of movements similar in nature to a washing machine and piping bag. The contents are churned and then moved on mass by contractions whilst excess water is re absorbed into the body. As the faecal matter loses water it becomes more solid so the lining of the colon secretes mucous to ease its passage through to the rectum.

There is still a digestive role for the colon to play, as it is at this point that billions of bacteria in the colon synthesise the essential vitamins K as well as gases such as hydrogen, carbon dioxide and methane. Some of which make themselves more evident when we have consumed high fibre foods like beans.

Digestive process – timings.

From start to finish a normal and healthy digestive system will process the food you eat in approximately 12 to 24 hours. The longest period of digestion is in the colon where the process may take several days. Obviously what we eat will affect the timing of the process as harmful bacteria in food can cause the body to rush the elimination resulting in diarrhoea or the lack of fibre may result in constipation.

Ideally you should be eliminating food every 12 hours but certainly every 24 hours. As you will have seen there are many organs and processes involved and if only one of these is out of sync with the rest of the digestive system it can have a knock on affect that could potentially damage your overall health.

Eating a balanced diet is the best way to maintain a healthy digestive tract and so is some simple maintenance from time to time including dental care and detox programmes.

My nutritional background

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 my health books and fiction in ebooks you can find them here: My books and reviews 2020

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.