What Does the Stomach Do...Besides Make Us Feel Fat?
~ by Jo Jordan
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The stomach is a stretchy, bean-shaped sack on the left side of the abdominal cavity. A muscular organ of the gastrointestinal tract, the stomach is attached to the lower end of our esophagus (a tube that is connected to the throat at its upper end). Above the stomach lies the diaphragm and beneath it the pancreas.
Once our food has been chewed, stage one of the digestive process, it goes into the stomach. This organ is responsible for the second phase of digestion, and performs three vital functions:
- Storing food
- Breaking down food into a liquidy mixture known as chyme
- Slowly emptying chyme into the small intestine
A temporary food storage area, the hollow human stomach can expand to house up to four liters of food. A highly acidic environment, the stomach acts like a mixer, churning and mashing any food that has made its way down the esophagus into smaller pieces.
With help from digestive enzymes, gastric juices, and strong muscles in the stomach’s walls, the stomach breaks down food. The gastric juices also help to destroy any bacteria being harbored in the food we’ve eaten. Various digestive system hormones, together with the autonomic nervous system, control the flow of chemicals into the stomach.
And what, you may be wondering, keeps all this partially digested stuff from seeping out of us at from either end of the stomach? The esophageal sphincter at the top end and the pyloric sphincter at the bottom ensure that your stomach’s contents will not escape until digestion is completed.
Stomach Conditions and Diseases
A healthy stomach is capable of producing up to three liters a day of the vital gastric acid required for digestion. However, if too much, too little, or no gastric acid is produced, conditions known as hyperchlorhydria (too much) and hypochlorhydria or achlorhydria (too little or none) result, and can lead to serious health problems.
In addition to gastric acid imbalance, certain stomach diseases are linked to Helicobacter pylori infection. In fact, recent studies suggest that most cases of gastritis, stomach cancer, and stomach ulcers are caused by H. pylori infection.
Diseases and conditions of the stomach include:
- Abdominal pain
- Achlorhydria (no acid production)
- Bleeding in the digestive tract
- Borborygmus (the rumbling sound of gas moving through the intestine)
- Cyclic vomiting syndrome
- Dilatation of the stomach (enlargement)
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Helicobacter pylori (a bacterial infection commonly referred to as H. pylori)
- Hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid)
- Hypopepsia (digestion impairment due to pepsin deficiency)
- Linitis plastica
- Ménétrier's disease
- Non-ulcer dyspepsia
- Peptic ulcers
- Prolapsed stomach (the organ has slipped out of placed)
- Rapid gastric emptying
- Zollinger-Ellison syndrome
The Importance of Caring for Your Belly
Disorders of the stomach are so prevalent that people nod knowingly when friends describe various unpleasant symptoms. In order to emphasize the importance of caring for your stomach, know that many conditions may simply be the various progressive stages of the same fundamental illness.1
Dilatation of the stomach, for example, is believed to result from dyspepsia, gastritis, and other conditions in which the stomach has been overloaded with food, and distended by gas, over a long period of time. And it has been suggested that stomach cancer is the result of chronic irritation, often at the site of a former ulcer. 2
Years of abuse, including incorrect food selection, improper eating habits, alcohol intake, and even sugar and carbohydrate intake, wreak serious havoc on this delicate organ. Emotional disturbances; untended diseases of the liver, gallbladder, and bile duct; chronic appendicitis; and even inflammation of other abdominal organs can all have a devastating, snowball effect on the stomach.
The good news is that the stomach is highly treatable. Even just giving it a complete rest – the only human organ where this is possible – can have a healing effect.
Stomach Care Tips
- Avoid anything super-sized – overeating diminishes the effectiveness of hydrochloric acid and enzymes; five or six small meals per day are always preferable to three large ones
- Avoid rapid weight loss programs – they put a strain on your stomach
- Be careful when using antacids – many people unknowingly suffer from low stomach acid; antacids further decrease the amount of hydrochloric acid in your stomach, making the problem worse
- Chew food slowly to avoid gulping air – this can lead to gas and bloating
- Chew your food well before swallowing – chewing stimulates the digestive process
- Consider taking daily digestive enzymes to aid digestion
- Don’t combine major proteins (i.e. chicken, fish, steak) with major/complex carbohydrates (i.e. bread, pasta, potatoes) – each requires different digestive enzymes; combining results in a slowing down of the digestive process
- Don’t drink fluids with meals – they dilute gastric acid, leading to bloating and poor digestion
- Don’t let H. pylori and or other health problems go unresolved
- Eat high quality food – natural, organic food is easier to digest than processed food
- Eat only fruit in the morning – it’s ninety percent water, so is easier to digest than other foods
- Fast periodically – the human body was not designed to eat everyday – a rest can provide the stomach with a healing break
- Never eat in a hurry – stress inhibits the production of the hydrochloric acid and enzymes necessary for proper digestion
A few final points...
Certain food combinations can cause stomach irritation. For some people, eating one thing at a time is easier on the digestive system. And know that while weight lifting and other straining activities can result in a prolapsed stomach, gentle exercise is essential to stomach health; poor stomach tone can contribute to the onset and severity of various diseases of the stomach.
So the moral of this stomach story is that we all need to get to know our guts a bit better. The stomach is not what’s making us fat...it’s what is keeping us alive and healthy – and sometimes even uncomfortable if we neglect to take care of it the way we ought to!
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1. Hindustalink.com Health Care Blog, “Stomach Disease – Its Symptoms and Significance,” http://www.hindustanlink.com/doctortex/doctor/stomach_disease.htm (accessed June 20, 2008).