What happens to the food we eat
The food we eat undergoes three main processes inside our body – Digestion, Absorption, and Elimination.
In these processes, the large food particles are broken down into small molecules that can be easily absorbed and delivered to the cells and the undigested or waste materials are removed from the body.
These processes occur in a 30 feet long tube that begins at the mouth and ends at anus called gastro-intestinal tract or simply GI tract.
Any problem in these processes can lead to great discomfort.
Digestion from Mouth to Stomach
The process of digestion actually begins in the mouth, where the food is chewed and mixed with saliva that lubricates the food for swallowing and also digests the food material by its digestive enzymes.
Once the food is sufficiently chewed and swallowed it enters the esophagus, which is a long tube that carries the food to the stomach by its peristaltic movement.
At the base of the esophagus, lower oesophageal sphincter which is a bundle of muscles closes after the entry of food into the stomach preventing the stomach acids and food from returning back to the esophagus.
On the entry of food, certain cells present in the stomach secretes gastric juices that contain HCL and enzymes that digest the food. HCL in stomach activates enzymes, kills harmful microorganisms and digests the food particles aiding the process of digestion.
The presence of food also stimulates the stomach muscular walls that results in the churning of the food and mixing up with the stomach acids and enzymes for digestion and making the food into a semi-liquid matter called chyme.
The chyme is then transferred through the pyloric sphincter in little amounts to the small intestine.
Digestion in Small and Large Intestine
The digestion then continues in the duodenum part of the small intestine where bile from the liver and pancreatic enzymes are added to the chyme, which is useful for digestion of fats and proteins.
Later the chyme moves to the jejunum and ilium parts of the small intestine where absorption of digested particles takes places by the cells present on villi (finger-like projections on small intestine inner walls).
After traveling in the small intestine the remaining material enters to the large intestine passing another sphincter.
In the large intestine, most of the water content and some unabsorbed particles are absorbed. The chyme passes through the large intestine and enters the rectum part during which it becomes a semisolid material called feces.
It remains in the rectum and is moves out of the body by voluntary control.
Although you are healthy, occasionally several problems may arise anywhere along the path of the process of digestion, absorption, and elimination making you uncomfortable.
These problems mainly include Heartburn, Flatulence, Constipation, Abdominal pain, Nausea, Burping, Loss of appetite, Diarrhea, Vomiting, Bloated and Growling stomach.
Although the problems range from mild to severe, immediate action is necessary to avoid further complications.
Most are the problems are due to our lifestyle, food habits and some also occur due to aging and genetics. Apart from the normal medications, several herbs like Peppermint, Dill, and Chamomile can help to treat certain digestive problems.
Herbs For digestion
In Ayurveda, turmeric root is highly valued as a medicine for treating several health problems like poor digestion, wounds, skin and lung diseases.
It has a long history of culinary use in India considering its numerous health benefits.
Turmeric is used as a traditional remedy for treating digestive disorders like Indigestion, flatulence, and constipation (1).
Well known for its therapeutic properties, Peppermint is an effective remedy for digestive problems. It is commonly taken to aid digestion and also to relieve flatulence and bloating.
Peppermint oil is also proved to be effective in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (5).
Known for its seeds, Cumin is a popular spice and medicinal herb that is used as a remedy for digestive problems like Diarrhea, Gas, and Dyspepsia.
Research conducted had also proven that cumin can help in promoting digestion by increasing the activity of digestive enzymes (6).
In a study conducted fifty-seven patients with irritable bowel syndrome had reported significant improvement in their symptoms after treatment with cumin extract (7).
We all know that ginger is one of the most popular spices having a strong aroma and taste. It gives a unique flavor when added to our food. In fact, it is one of the commonly used ingredients in Indian and Southeast Asian cuisines.
Besides its popularity as a flavoring spice, Ginger is also well-known as a digestive herb. It is traditionally used as a remedy for indigestion and flatulence.
One of the key herbal plants that have been used over centuries, Chamomile is regarded as an excellent herbal remedy for digestion across Europe.
Herbal tea made from dried flowers of chamomile is known to have a wide range of health benefits.
Research had revealed that chamomile decoction extract has potential antidiarrheal and antioxidant properties (8).
Research conducted had shown that Chamomile extract possesses significant Antiulcer effect and was proven to be superior when compared to Zantac, an anti-ulcer drug (9).
Widely used as a flavoring substance in several dishes, Cardamon is also well known to soothe the digestion process and is mainly used as a remedy for gas and constipation.
Several studies indicate the essential oils obtained from the cardamom are known to have positive effects on health.
An experimental study conducted on rats had shown that Elettaria cardamomum was able to significantly inhibit gastric lesions induced by ethanol and aspirin (10).
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Popular across the world, fennel seeds are known to have amazing medicinal properties like anti inflammatory, gastroprotective, hepatoprotective and bronchodilatory properties.
Fennel seeds are consumed directly or made into a drink to get relief from digestive problems like bloating and stomach pain. They are also used as a great remedy to stimulate the appetite.
Asafoetida is a perineal herb cultivated across dry and mountainous regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and some parts of India. It is an oleo gum resin obtained from the rhizome of the plant (11).
It is commonly added as an ingredient in Indian cuisines at the time of tampering for easy digestion of food. It is also added to pickles as a preservative.
Asafoetida is well known since ancient times as an excellent digestive herb for flatulence, bloating and gut disorders.
Not only as a leafy herb widely used in soups, stews, pickles, and other dishes, Dill is also well known as an herbal medicine for several digestive problems.
This digestive herb is used as a remedy since ancient times for indigestion and flatulence. Its seeds are known to possess anti-microbial activity.
A study has shown that dill fruit extract exhibited an antispasmodic effect on rat ileum and also suggests the effect may be due to blockade of voltage dependent calcium channels (15).
Essential oils obtained from dill seed were known to possess antifungal activity (16).
Both leaves and seeds of ajwain plant are used as a traditional medicine for digestive problems like indigestion, flatulence, colic, and diarrhea.
The seeds or seed powder is combined with salt and warm water and taken after the meals to aid the digestion and also to relieve from bowel pain. The infusion made from the seeds can also be used for this purpose (17).
Ajwain leaves are used for preparing different recipes and are also used as a remedy for digestion and cough.
Widely spread across Europe and North America, dandelions are often considered as a weed. However, this herbaceous plant is regarded as a medicinal herb due to its wide range of medicinal properties.
Its leaves are known to be diuretic and its roots are used to treat constipation and are also considered to have as detoxifying nature.
Dandelion flowers contain potential bioactive compounds that are known to possess antioxidant activity (18).
In a study, it was revealed that dandelion extract has exhibited protective nature against alcohol induced toxicity in the liver (19).
Since ancient times caraway seeds have been used in treating digestive problems like flatulence, diarrhea, and dyspepsia (20).
Caraway seeds are also considered as antispasmodic and are used as a remedy used to relieve from colic and cramps.
Recommendations to avoid Digestive Problems
In general, chew the food properly before swallowing as it helps to make the food particles smaller and ground. Chewing also helps to mix with saliva which lubricates and starts breaking down the starches and fats.
Don’t talk or laugh while eating as it may cause choking
Acid reflux or heartburn avoid consuming foods and drinks that can increase the heartburn or reflux and also take small meals.
For Intestinal gas, Belching and Bloating avoid consuming any troublesome foods as they can worsen the condition much more. At the same time thoroughly chew the food before swallowing, don’t eat fast as it may lead to swallowing excess air along with food.
Taking the excess amount of fluids and easily digested foods can be helpful in case of constipation.