It is the forgotten step sister to many other organs in the body. Much like the three times removed cousin unfit to be presented in polite society, this unassuming body part remains largely unknown. It is the small intestine.
Although it has started to receive a little bit of attention in recent years, most people do not give this organ a second thought. The heart is a bonafide star and, of course, the brain is well known by everyone. The stomach, liver and kidneys get their share of notoriety and easily overshadow the intestine. However, the small intestine has more than one superpower and its plain appearance is merely a disguise.
What is the small intestine all about?
This digestive organ is about 20 feet long and one inch in diameter. Its job is to absorb most of the nutrients from what we eat and drink. It is divided into the duodenum, jejunum and ileum.
The duodenum is roughly 10 inches long. This first section receives chyme (semi digested food) from the stomach. The pancreas and liver deposit pancreatic juice and bile respectively into the duodenum. The jejunum is much longer (up to 8 feet long). Absorption takes place in this middle section. The ileum is about 12 feet in length. It is the last section of the small intestine. It ends with the ileocecal valve. This valve prevents backward movement of feces from the large intestine.
The small intestine is an awesome organ with very important functions:
- It digests proteins, lipids and carbohydrates thanks to the pancreatic enzymes (protease, lipase and amylase).
- It absorbs nutrients by facilitated diffusion or active transport. They are then taken into blood capillaries.
The interior of the intestine is called intestinal mucosa. It has fingerlike projections or villi that increase its surface area for thorough absorption and digestion. In fact, the villi themselves have microvilli, which form the brush border responsible for the absorption of nutrients.
Unfortunately, many conditions can alter this delicate environment and prevent proper absorption of nutrients. Sometimes viral or bacterial infections and even parasites are common causes. Other chronic conditions include Celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder caused by gluten), leaky gut syndrome (excessive permeability of the intestinal wall) and even rare and malignant cancerous growths.
In order to maintain the small intestine in prime condition, it is essential to abstain from over the counter medications (NSAIDS, PPIs), prescription drugs (antibiotics), common allergens (dairy, gluten, etc…), excessive stress and alcohol. Easier said than done, but the health of the small intestine highly correlates with overall wellbeing, so it is well worth it to be aware and careful.
It is recommended that the diet be rich in fresh, raw vegetables and fruits with the specific addition of bitter and demulcent herbs such as dandelion and marshmallow root. Non allergenic protein rich foods and fermented foods such as miso, sauerkraut and kefir are highly nutritious and soothing to the intestinal tract.
Take good care of your small intestine and you will be rewarded with amazing digestive ability and glowing external appearance. It will help you make the most of every healthy morsel you eat.