The small intestine is such an amazing organ, I could write about it for pages. But I won’t. Instead, I’ll try to capture it’s awesomeness in this single post. When coiled up, the small intestine is 15-20 feet long; if you spread it out it flat, the surface area could cover a tennis court. All of this is scrunched up and compacted to fit into just a portion of the abdominal cavity, which is both fascinating and a maybe a little bit disturbing. How can an organ so big be called “small”?
It certainly doesn’t have a small job to do. Once food leaves the stomach, it will stay in the small intestine for about 2 hours. It’s during this time that nearly ALL nutrients get absorbed: vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and everything in between! The small intestine has three parts and each one sounds like a spell from Harry Potter:
- Duodenum: The duodenum makes up the first 12 inches of the small intestine. Enzymes and bile from the pancreas and gall bladder (more on these later) enter the duodenum for the final breakdown of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats). It’s also here that absorption of minerals takes place. How well minerals are absorbed depends on whether sufficient hydrochloric acid is produced in the stomach (remember the stomach brings the heat!). Protein intake at the meal also affects mineral absorption as minerals have to bind to amino acids in order to be absorbed.
- Jejunum: Vitamins and simple sugars (from carbohydrates), and amino acids (from proteins) are absorbed in the next 11 feet – that’s right: feet – of the small intestine. Water soluble vitamins, like Vitamin C and the B-complex vitamins, go directly into the blood stream. These vitamins are flushed out of the body quickly, and need to be taken more frequently, either in our food or as supplements. Fat soluble vitamins, like Vitamins A, D, and E – all great antioxidants – are packaged into fats in this part of the small intestine.
- Ileum: Any vitamin, mineral, simple sugar or amino acid that hasn’t been absorbed yet will get picked up here. Fats and fat soluble vitamins are transported to the lymphatic system where they slowly enter the bloodstream over time. These vitamins are more easily stored than water soluble vitamins. Dietary cholesterol, Vitamin B12 and bile salts are also absorbed here.
Absorption happens through small projections called microvilli, that absorb what you need and blocks what you don’t. Think of these villi as little fingers lined up next to each other with just enough space for nutrients to get through but small enough that large, unwanted particles can’t. So much goes on in the small intestine, and that was just the Reader’s Digest version!
The biggest issue with the small intestine is Leaky Gut Syndrome. Essentially the small spaces between microvilli become irritated or inflamed. This irritation can be caused by unknown allergies, alcohol consumption, use of Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDS), or the presence of parasites or candidaisis. Because of this irritation, undigested foods, chemicals/environmental toxins, and/or bacteria begin to pass through the intestinal wall and can lead to symptoms like:
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
- Skin problems, like acne, eczema and psoriasis
- Food sensitivities and intolerances
- Headaches and/or migraines
- Fatigue and lethargy, including chronic fatigue syndrome
Of course, any tips for avoiding these symptoms are in your best interest. And supporting the small intestine is a huge step towards better health. Here are a few things you can do:
- Take care of the stomach: We know stomach acid is required for mineral absorption. Making small changes like adding lemon water will help. Read more here.
- Eat protein with every meal: Including a high quality protein, like organic eggs, free-range meats and wild fish also helps with mineral absorption and will give you necessary building blocks for regeneration in the body.
- Check for food sensitivities: The two most common food sensitivities are wheat and dairy. If you think food sensitivities may be contributing to your symptoms, try removing these from your diet for a week or so and see if symptoms subside.
- Reduce/eliminate possible irritants: In addition to allergies/food sensitivities, addressing the possibility of parasites or candida, plus eliminating alcohol and reducing dependence on NSAIDS will put you on the right track.
These last two pieces of advice may seem scary or daunting, but you don’t have to do it by yourself. There are many practitioners out there who can help you decide what’s best for you and how to go about it. When you’re ready help is out there.
Until next time. And as I always say, take what you want and leave the rest.