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The path of your digestive system is a long and winding route starting at the mouth and ending at the anus. The lower parts of the digestive system are collectively referred to as the bowels, which are responsible for the processing and elimination of waste matter. After useful nutrients have been absorbed from foods, the body must dispose of the remaining material. Some of this residue is just useless organic garbage, while some of it can harm the body due to the presence of toxins. If the body cannot rid itself of these harmful substances, many serious health problems can result. To maintain optimal health, properly functioning bowels are essential.

The Small Bowel

Your bowels begin with the small intestine (otherwise referred to as the small bowel) which is the first stop for food after it leaves the stomach. This amazing organ reaches more than twenty feet in length and performs two very important jobs. First, it absorbs the nutrients you need from food and transports them into your bloodstream. As the food is pushed along by digestive muscles, juices from the pancreas, liver, kidneys, and small intestine help dissolve it and speed up the process. Everything that is useful to the body is absorbed at this point, leaving just waste material behind. The second important role of the small bowel is to deliver that waste to the colon at a rate of up to two pints per day.

Digestive Juices

While still in the small intestine, digestive juices play a crucial role in the overall function of the bowels. These secretions help break down nutrients in food so they can be properly absorbed into the body. The pancreas produces an enzyme rich fluid for the digestion of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

Meanwhile, the liver secretes a substance called bile, which is stored in the gallbladder between meals. Whenever you eat, bile is squeezed out of the gallbladder into bile ducts connected to the small bowel where it mixes with food. Bile contains acids to break down fat and effectively dissolve it into a liquid. Once dissolved, fat can be digested by not only the pancreatic secretions but by enzymes produced in the lining of the bowels as well.

Intestinal Villi

The inside of the small bowel is covered with small, finger like projections called villi. Villi resemble sponges in form and function and they have the ability to absorb huge amounts of nutrients from the foods you have eaten. Villi deliver all these essential nutrients directly to your circulatory system so your body can use them to stay healthy. When all nutrients have been absorbed through the villi, what remains in the small intestine is waste. This waste is then ready to be delivered to the colon.

The Colon

The colon is a muscular tube about five to six feet long that carries waste to the rectum. When waste material first enters the colon, it is quite watery. As the waste is moved along by rhythmic contractions of the colon, fluid is gradually removed and reabsorbed back into the body. At this stage, mucus and friendly bacteria join the mix. Waste can sometimes remain in this area for several days. The longer waste remains in the colon, however, the more water is absorbed and the harder and drier the waste becomes. If it remains too long at this stage of the digestive process, constipation can result. On the other hand, if waste is moved along too quickly you might suffer from diarrhea.

The Upper Colon

The upper parts of the colon are divided into sections called the ascending, the transverse, and the descending colons respectively. At the bottom of the colon, just past the descending part, lies the sigmoid colon. The name sigmoid means “S-shaped” and describes the physical form of this section. The sigmoid colon contains muscular walls which contract to increase pressure and move waste along.

The Rectum and Anus

At the end of the sigmoid colon is the rectum, which measures about eight inches long and acts as a temporary storehouse for waste matter. To keep the waste in place until you are ready to have a bowel movement, transverse folds (resembling little shelves) give it a place to rest. The waste eventually moves into the lower rectum for elimination.

When the rectum is full, it’s time to move the bowels. Increased pressure in the rectum forces apart the walls of the anal canal and allows waste to enter. The anal canal is 2.5 to 4 centimeters long. Anal columns (vertical folds of tissue) comprise its upper half. The lower half contains anal valves, which are folds of tissue connecting the bottoms of the columns. At the end of the anal canal (the end of the digestive path as well) lies the anus. Internal and external sphincter muscles allow waste to exit the body by pulling the anus up and over it. Finally, the waste exits the body, marking the completion of a healthy and normal digestive process. The end!

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