A healthy digestive system is essential to a healthy body. This should come as no surprise when you consider that our digestive system is responsible for taking everything we eat and drink and breaking it down into substances our body either uses or eliminates. Consequently, any deficit in digestive function – whether due to illness, injury, genetics, or aging – can have a significant impact on our overall health. Several factors can contribute to digestive problems.
Normally, digestion starts before food even enters the body. As soon as an individual sees food, smells food, or even thinks about food, digestive enzymes are released in the saliva in anticipation of the expectant meal. Once the food is eaten and chewed, these enzymes are mixed in, aiding the initial digestion process.
While this is going on, the stomach is at work preparing for the next step. Hydrochloric acid (HCl for short) is a strong, highly corrosive acid that is naturally made in the parietal (puh-rye-eh-tull) cells in the stomach. HCl activates digestive enzymes and helps break down food into simpler components for the body to use. HCl is also known as "gastric acid." When food enters the stomach, HCl activates the release of enzymes, such as pepsin, to break down proteins into smaller pieces. Other enzymes are also activated that help break down carbohydrates and fats. This also stimulates the production and release of enzymes from the pancreas. These enzymes mix with digesting food as it leaves the stomach and moves to the small intestine, further breaking down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats into amino acids, sugars, and smaller fats that are absorbed in the small intestine and distributed to the body.
Stomach ailments are commonplace in Western society. In fact, who among us at one time or another hasn't experienced some form of stomach discomfort, such as heartburn, or acid indigestion? One of the most common problems experienced today is chronic acid reflux, a condition where HCl backflows (or "refluxes") up from the stomach into the esophagus, causing a burning sensation in the chest or bottom of the throat.
It was initially thought that acid reflux was the result of too much HCl production in the stomach. Consequently, people simply took antacid tablets to minimize the symptoms. The problem is so pervasive that more than $20 billion each year is spent on prescription antacid medications, a figure that does not take into account money spent on over-the-counter antacids. The sobering thought is that these medications may actually be making the problem worse, because it is now increasingly believed that acid reflux may not be a result of too much stomach acid – it may actually be a sign of too little.
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