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Digestive health centre

11 surprising facts about your gastrointestinal tract

When it comes to the gastrointestinal tract, experts say myths abound. How much do you really know about what goes on inside your abdomen?
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

From those burning, churning feelings that erupt when we overdo it with our favourite foods, to the bloating that keeps us from zipping up our jeans, to the wind that can make us the most unpopular person in the lift, our stomach and intestines can be the cause of some major inconveniences, if not some health concerns.

Still, experts say most people know painfully little about how their stomach and digestive tract operates; one reason that solving tummy troubles can seem much harder than it has to be.

There are many misconceptions about our gut and how it works. "We want people to think about their guts and talk about their guts as they do about their heart and lungs," says Dr Anton Emmanuel, consultant gastroenterologist at University College Hospital. "It’s not a dirty dark organ. It’s something we all have."

To help you understand a bit more about your guts, Dr Emmanuel helped prepare the following gut-busting challenge. Try to separate the myths from the facts to see how much you really know about how to keep your tummy healthy and happy.

1 - Myth or fact: Digestion takes place primarily in the stomach.

Answer: Myth. "Most food is digested in the 15 foot of tubing that is your small intestine," says Dr Emmanuel. Digestion begins in the mouth where an enzyme in your saliva breaks down some of the food. When you swallow your food, it is squeezed down the gullet and into your stomach by a process called peristalsis. "Your stomach has two roles: one is to do more grinding, like your teeth do, and the other is to throw acid into the mix," says Dr Emmanuel. "It’s like putting something into a liquidiser and blending it with some vinegar." However, most digestion occurs downstream from there, once it leaves your stomach and goes into your small intestine.

2 - Myth or fact: If you cut down on your food intake, you'll eventually shrink your stomach so you won't be as hungry.

Answer: Fact. "It does shrink, but it’s not a permanent shrinkage," says Dr Emmanuel. "Your stomach is a muscle and when it isn’t used—in other words, when it doesn’t get filled up with food—it shrinks and becomes stiff." Dr Emmanuel gives the example of patients who have had to abstain from eating before an operation. If they try to eat soon after the operation, their stomachs can’t handle the volume of food and they throw up.

3 - Myth or fact: Thin people have naturally smaller stomachs than people who are heavy.

Answer: Myth. "It isn’t true that your stomach size is correlated to your body size," says Dr Emmanuel. People who are naturally thin can have the same size or even larger stomachs than people who battle with their weight throughout their life.

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