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INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT DIGESTION

The liver –more than a just a digestive gland

The liver, as the central organ of the metabolism, performs a variety of tasks. These include the acceptance, use and storage of nutrients, the provision of essential proteins, the formation and breakdown of hormones, the production of bile and, as a result, the breakdown and excretion of endogenous (the body's own) and exogenous (foreign) substances.

In addition, the liver plays an important role in the immune system. The liver is thus not just the largest digestive gland, but also the most important organ of detoxification.

In everyday life, the liver has to meet the major challenges caused by an unbalanced diet, daily stress, environmental pollutants, preservatives, and exposure to alcohol.

However, a sustained overburdening of the liver can mean that the digestive system no longer functions ideally, and unpleasant symptoms such as bloating, upper abdominal pain and flatulance may be encountered.

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The gall bladder – so that fat can be digested

Fatty foods are considered difficult to digest. The reason is that fat does not dissolve in water. Just like fat floats on a soup, it behaves likewise in the gastrointestinal tract.

In order for the body to digest and recover the fat from food, it first needs to make it soluble in the aqueous environment of the intestine. This takes place with the help of bile. It contains particular substances (“bile salts”), which allow the fat to emulsify. The fat is divided into fine droplets and kept in suspension. In this form, it can be split up by the digestive enzymes and absorbed into the blood.

An adequate flow of bile is thus a precondition for uninterrupted fat digestion. Bile is continuously produced in the liver and then stored in the gall bladder. When we eat a meal, the gall bladder contracts, allowing the bile to be released into the intestine.

Tips for a healthy digestive system

  • Exercise prevents constipation: Regular physical activity stimulates the activity of the intestines. Gymnastics (in particular training the abdominal muscles), hiking and walking, swimming, cycling or other sports keep the intestine active and preserve the natural digestive function.
  • Varied and balanced diet: For a healthy digestive system, it is helpful to eat slowly in a relaxed atmosphere, and to consciously chew well. This will avoid harmful stress on the digestive organs and relieve the pressure on the digestive system. Having several small meals throughout the day will also protect the digestive organs from being overloaded.
  • A varied and balanced diet: Fibre-rich products such as fresh fruit, vegetables, salad and wholegrain products help to stimulate the bowel function. Many people are also helped by taking dietary fibre in the form of linseed, pectin, oat flakes or psyllium. However, anyone who has previously only eaten low-fibre food, should increase their fibre intake slowly so as to avoid flatulence. In addition, drinking sufficient liquid is also important for normal bowel movements. You should drink at least 2 litres (around four pints) of fluid, ideally in the form of mineral water, juice or herbal tea.
  • Limiting alcohol and nicotine consumption: Since alcohol and nicotine can be a burden on the digestive system, their consumption should be reduced and sensitive people should refrain from their use altogether.
  • Psychological balance: For many people, day-to-day stress, anger and anxiety lead to gastrointestinal complaints such as stomach pain, diarrhoea, or constipation. Regular periods of relaxation, adequate sleep and rest ensure that the psychological balance is retained, and can contribute to maintaining a healthy digestive system.

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Medicinal plants for the digestive system, the liver and the gall bladder

Scientific research has shown that different medicinal plants can provide useful support to promote the functioning of the digestive system, the liver and the gall bladder.

Castor oil is obtained from the seeds of the castor plant (Ricinus communis), which belongs to the spurge family of plants and is native to tropical and subtropical regions. The plant's development depends on its location. While in the tropics, the castor oil plant can to grow into a 13-m high tree in a short time, in moderate Central Europe it only grows as an annual herb. In herbal medicine, the oil obtained from the seed by cold pressing is used. The laxative effect of castor oil, which was already known in antiquity, has also been researched well by scientists. The active substance is actually ricinoleic acid, which is only released from the oil in the small intestine through endogenous (the body's own) enzymes.

The milk thistle (Silybum marianum) belongs to the Asteraceae family and is native to Southern Europe, Southern Russia, Asia Minor and Northern Africa. The plant was given its name due to the milky-white spots on its leaves. As a medicinal plant, the milk thistle has a firm tradition in monastic medicine and was planted in the gardens of monasteries as early as in the Middle Ages. Even in those days, it was already known for its healing effect on digestive problems and its liver-protecting properties. It is the seed-like fruits of the milk thistle which are used. Essential ingredients are silymarin, a complex of different flavonolignans, amaroids, essential oil and vitamin E. Silymarin is responsible for the liver-protective properties. This compound activates the repair mechanisms in the liver cells and promotes the regeneration of the liver.

The artichoke (Cynara scolymus L) is a thistle-like crop plant from the Asteraceae family. The plant forms flowers whose fleshy toruses (receptacles) are enjoyed as a fancy vegetable. The positive effect of artichoke leaves on digestion was already known in the Middle Ages. Their positive effect on digestion, their cholesterol-lowering properties and their liver-protecting properties are now considered as scientifically proven. The leaves are used in herbal medicine. They contain numerous flavonoids, amaroids, and quinic acid derivatives. The amaroid cynarin acts as a particular liver stimulant, promotes the flow of bile, and therefore contributes to an improved digestion of fat. Extracts from artichoke leaves are thus particularly useful for treating non-specific digestive disorders.

The devil's claw is a plant which grows in steppe areas. Its name is derived from its peculiar fruits. They are equipped with sharp barbs which easily attach to animals and therefore support the dissemination of the plant.

The root of the devil's claw has long been known for its soothing effect on the digestive and the musculoskeletal system. Its core ingredients are the so-called iridoids. It also contains valuable flavonoids, terpenes as well as unsaturated fatty acids.

Extracts from the root of the devil's claw help with gastrointestinal symptoms and lack of appetite. They stimulate the production and excretion of digestive juices and can therefore improve the tolerability of food and reduce nausea, bloating and the sensation of fullness. The devil's claw is also a proven remedy for rheumatic symptoms. The extracts produced from its root can contribute to improved mobility.

Psyllium (Plantaginis ovatae semen) is a widely known bulking agent which is used to treat regular constipation, conditions in which easier defaecation and soft stool are desired (e.g. haemorrhoids after intestinal and rectal procedures, and during pregnancy). Psyllium can also be used as an adjuvant therapy for diarrhoea of varying aetiology as well as for irritable bowel syndrome. To achieve a positive effect, sufficient additional fluid intake should be ensured.

The flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) provides us with the extremely useful linseed. As early as in 5000 BC, flax was planted to produce fabrics, and is therefore one of the oldest crop plants.

The plant can grow up to one metre high and has bright blue flowers.

The seeds are used for constipation, to treat damage to the large intestine from laxatives, irritable bowel syndrome or inflammations of intestinal ventricles. Linseed is used in the form of gruel for inflammations of the gastric mucous membrane and the intestines. The laxative effect is based on an increased stool volume which triggers natural bowel movements. The mucoprotective effect is caused by a coating effect.

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