It goes by many names – the gastrointestinal tract, the GI tract, the digestive tract, the “gut”…

Whatever you call it, the fact is: digestion is quite an impressive process. Starting from the moment you take a bite, your digestive system is hard at work – and there are a ton of steps responsible for keeping things running smoothly.

However, when things aren’t running smoothly, it can be very uncomfortable. And if you’ve ever experienced heartburn after eating a meal… you know how difficult it can be to find relief.

But what causes heartburn to occur in the first place?

Let’s take a look at how your digestive system organs work, the steps of digestion, and what happens when you have heartburn.

The Digestive Journey

Here’s a quick “run down” of the inner workings of your digestive system, and how digestion actually works – from start to finish.

Step 1: The Beginning

The first stop on food’s journey through your digestive system, of course, is your mouth. The digestive process actually starts when you being to chew your food. The saliva in your mouth helps break down the food you eat, so your body can absorb the nutrients it needs.1

Food then travels from your mouth to your esophagus – the organ inside your throat, near your trachea. The main function of your esophagus is to transport food to your stomach, to help move it along through your gastrointestinal tract. The muscles of your esophagus contract, pushing food along its journey. This process of contraction is known as peristalsis.2

GI Tract | Westwood WellnessOnce peristalsis takes place, the process of digestion really begins to get interesting, as food travels through your digestive tract.

Step 2: Your Stomach

When food enters your stomach, the process of digestion really gets interesting. Not only does your stomach contain powerful enzymes, it also contains strong acids to break down food even further.

Think of your stomach like an efficient “machine” that releases enzymes. These enzymes mix with the food you’ve eaten, helping to break it down. This allows the food to more easily pass through your GI tract on its way out of your digestive system.3

Once the food leaves your stomach, it then travels further down your gastrointestinal tract to your intestines.

Step 3: Your Small Intestine

First, the food passes through your small intestine… which isn’t as small as you may think. It’s actually a more-than-20-foot tube that contains enzymes and bile. Just like the esophagus, the small intestine contracts over and over, continually pushing food through your digestive system.

One part of the small intestine, known as the duodenum, helps to further break down food. The two other parts, the ileum and jejunum, help your bloodstream absorb nutrients.4

The food that enters the small intestine is almost solid. By the time it exits, the food is in liquid form. This is due to the work of not only bile and enzymes, but water and mucous as well. Any leftover food then moves to the large intestine.5

Step 4: Your Large Intestine

Your large intestine, or colon, is the part of your GI tract most responsible for processing waste materials your body doesn’t need from the food you eat. This waste becomes stool, which is first in liquid form and then processed into solid form. Water is removed from the stool until it is emptied into the rectum.6

Now, your rectum’s main job is to hold stool until it is time to be released. When something enters your rectum, it sends a signal to your brain. The brain then makes the decision whether or not it’s time to empty the rectum. If the brain says it’s time to go, well, that’s when you have to go! This is the last step in the journey of food through your GI tract.7

How Heartburn Messes With Your Gastrointestinal Tract

While the digestive process usually goes so smoothly you hardly notice it, there are times when something can interfere with the functioning of your GI tract.

GI Tract | Westwood WellnessOne of the more common issues is heartburn, also known as acid reflux. This happens when acid backs up into your throat from your stomach.8

Not surprisingly, the most common symptom of heartburn is a burning sensation – primarily in your chest and throat. This is the result of acid backing up into your esophagus. Heartburn can make it tough to swallow – and in some instances, it can even make it difficult to talk. Food backs up into your esophagus when a small bundle of muscles, known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), fails to close properly.9

Certain foods, including tomato products, fatty or spicy foods, and onions can all contribute to symptoms.

You may also experience heartburn symptoms if:

  • You’re overweight or obese
  • You take certain medications
  • You drink alcohol or smoke10

Heartburn is often the result of indigestion. Other signs you might have indigestion include a bloated or nauseated feeling, belching, and nausea.11

If you experience symptoms on a regular basis, there may be a problem involving your GI tract. For example, your esophagus could have narrowed, leading to difficulty swallowing or more severe symptoms.12 It could mean there’s an issue with the lining of your stomach.14

Wrapping Up the GI Tract

As you can see, your GI tract is an extremely impressive system – and it’s responsible for giving your body the nutrients it needs. However, problems like heartburn can sometimes disturb your digestive system’s inner workings. If you deal with heartburn regularly, check in with your doctor. He or she can help you address whatever issue might be behind the problem – and help get your digestion back on track.

Learn More:
Do Antioxidants Improve Gut Health?
8 Common Digestive Problems
DIY Remedies to Soothe Diarrhea Symptoms

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