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 Integrative Medicine: Introduction to the Digestive System 
The digestive or gastrointestinal intestinal system, which is also known as the gut, is important for many reasons. Problems with it may result not only in one of the many digestive system disorders, but also to illnesses in any system of the body, such as the nervous system or the immune system. The reasons for this will become apparent as we explore the digestive system.

Most of you have heard the expression "you are what you eat." Although there is a good deal of truth to this concept, a more accurate statement would be: "you are what you eat, digest, assimilate and incorporate." Although this statement is also obviously less than complete, it does incorporate the very important notion that a person’s health is based not only on the food he eats, but also on how well he is able to break down these foods and process them in such a way that they are useful to the body. This is not only a function of what one eats, but also other factors, such as a genetic predisposition, exposures to toxic substances and exposures to infectious agents.

The digestive system consists of the mouth and teeth at one end and the anus at the other. In between is a long tube like structure with different names and different functions. The esophagus is a tube that passes through the chest and connects the mouth to the stomach. The stomach leads to the small intestine or small bowel, which is a narrow long tube from which most of the food absorption into the bloodstream takes place. The small intestine leads into the large intestine, which is also known as the colon or the large bowel. In the large intestine, fluid is reabsorbed back into the bloodstream and feces or stool is formed. This waste product passes through the end of the large intestine called the rectum through the opening known as the anus. The large intestine or colon also houses more bacteria than all of the cells of the human body. These bacteria have the potential to be either harmful or beneficial to the body, depending on many factors that will be discussed in subsequent medical updates.

The digestive system then is basically a tube running through the body that interfaces the body with the outside World. Its two major functions are first, to allow useful and necessary substances into the body to promote growth and health, and second, to keep harmful substances out of the body.

Normal Digestive Functioning and What Can Go Wrong
Let’s start with the mouth. The process of digestion begins in the mouth with the mechanical breaking down of food by chewing and the release of saliva from the salivary glands, whose ducts enter the mouth. The importance of chewing is generally ignored by conventional and complementary physicians alike and is merely taken for granted. However, proper digestion requires extensive chewing, so that food is broken down to a liquid form before it is swallowed. Failure to do this is the reason for finding large undigested food particles in stool. Saliva contains enzymes that help to break down complex carbohydrates into simple sugars. Sufficient chewing time is necessary for this initial digestive process to occur.

At the turn of the century, considerable attention was drawn to this issue by a man named Fletcher, who advocated at least 100 chews before swallowing. He claimed that extensive chewing was absolutely necessary for good health and the term "Fletcherism" was applied to this practice. Although his position may have been a bit extreme, insufficient attention is paid to chewing well before swallowing today. Therefore, my advice to all of you is to chew your foods well, as this will lead to healthier teeth and gums and better digestion.

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 About The Author
Michael Schachter MD, FACAM Director of the Schachter Center for Complementary Medicine, Michael B. Schachter, M.D., is a 1965 graduate of Columbia College of Physicians & Surgeons. He is board certified in Psychiatry, a Certified Nutrition......more
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