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Most research on digestion, and the associated bowel diseases that are unfortunately on the rise in the world, starts with food and chewing. They talk about the act of chewing (mastication), and how the food is broken down with saliva, and goes down the esophagus, where it then enters the stomach and is further broken down (peptides and stomach acid)—then the slowly digesting food enters the small intestine.

We get the basic science of food and sustenance. I am interested in what happens INSIDE the small and large intestines, and why, for some of us, the microbial balance is disrupted resulting in bowel disease—which, in some cases like Crohn’s can be incurable and a lifelong struggle.

The small intestine is in fact smaller (in diameter) than the large intestine. It is where vital absorption of nutrients for the body’s health occurs. I think of it this way— to use a road biking analogy—if your tires are inflated, and the road is smooth, the inner tube is fresh and new, your feet are on the pedals and the movement spins the wheel with a steady and productive ease, then your digestive tract functions as it should. All antigens, are dealt with swiftly, and promptly, with the T-helper cells, and white blood cells, doing their job like a little army of white-suited patrols, following behind you like a bicycle sag-support wagon. The road is flat—no bumps, or traffic jams, or debris!

An antigen is any substance that causes your immune system to produce antibodies against it. An antigen may be a foreign substance from the environment such as chemicals, bacteria, viruses, or pollen. An antigen may also be formed within the body, as with bacterial toxins or tissue cells.

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I won’t bore you with the details… But I did get into an argument the other day with my friend, Geoff. He tends to be a “know it all,” but then again, I pretend to be one, too! I said, “the digestive tract is longer than a football field!” To which he replied, “You’re wrong, and that’s crazy!” Together we looked on Google and found that the length of the digestive tract is about 20-30 feet, which is the WIDTH of a basketball court!!

Duly chastised, I began to ponder the sports field/court analogy, and the physical image/link to gut disease…. We, especially Americans, “get” the length of a court or a football field — soccer, maybe not so much! The physical representation, or image, of the digestive tract spread out in one long line across a basketball court makes me smile and cringe at the same time. I love basketball, don’t get me wrong! My daughter played D3 ball, and I am a big Carolina fan, but last night I was watching the Duke-Maryland game (Blue Devils lost!), and my mind occasionally saw a black line across the court. . . .

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Now that we know the length of the digestive tract, let me add by saying the small intestine is much longer, and more vital to our nutritional health. There is an excellent research site and description of the process from a bio-chemical perspective here.

Below, is a description of the process of digestion, and note that in Celiac disease, the villi is damaged and does not function as it should. For those of us who most likely have what Dr. Kalish refers to as sub-clinical gluten intolerance, or Leaky Gut (damage to mucosal lining), it is imperative to strengthen our immune system which can become compromised: lifestyle changes, supplements, and Eastern medicine are all great ways to help us balance and strengthen our immune systems. For us Crohnnies, the actual wall of the small intestine is damaged, for uc-ers, the large intestine is inflamed and irritated, but can be removed to alleviate symptoms.

The small intestine is a long and narrow tube about 6 to 7 meters (20 to 23 feet) long. Food completes its chemical decomposition in which a compound is split into other compounds by reacting with water in the small intestine with the help of the liver, pancreas, and intestinal glands who pour their secretions into it. In the small intestine, there are an enormous number of tiny projections called villi, which absorb the end products of digestion. Villi and folds in the walls of the small intestine cover the lining and greatly increases the surface for absorption, which contributes to the length of the small intestine. The human small intestine has a surface area about ten times greater than the skin surface.

The large intestine is wider in diameter but shorter than the small intestine. It is only about 1.5 meters (5 feet) long. There is no decomposition of food in the large intestine. Bacteria in the large intestine break down any quantity of proteins that have not been completely digested. The large intestine is mostly used to store feces or waste, which consists of 10 to 50 percent of bacteria, undigested cellulose of plant cell walls, minerals, and water. This is then eliminated through the anus. (Physics Factbook)

The circular bicycle wheel image, for me, is much more compatible with my idea of the function of the small bowel. The large snakelike image of the width of the basketball court helps to justify the length in my mind, but the real process—that of digestion—is vital to our health, and it is our job to keep the tires smooth and running.

Happy spring everyone! Get out your bicycles, and tune them up! April 1st marks the beginning if the “Living With Crohn’s & Colitis Bicycle Challenge”…. Please post your progress here, and on our Facebook and Twitter pages—if you can’t ride, try walking every day!

Last, but not least, if you want to support me in my Half Marathon for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation (www.ccfa.org) this summer, please check out my fundraising page. I am excited to run with Team New England, and you can read why, here….

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