What do earthworms and the human digestive system have in common? They both use something called peristalsis to keep things moving. This is an involuntary contraction and relaxation of the muscles. Earthworms use it to move forward. Our digestive system uses it to move food from the mouth, down the esophagus and all the way out at the other end. Everybody poops, and we have peristalsis to thank for that.
Without this involuntary movement, the food that we eat would not be able to move through our digestive system. Similarly, the liquids in our body would not make it from one place to the other. These involuntary contractions and relaxations occur in the lining of the intestines. They also happen in the organ that links the kidney and the bladder. Peristalsis is our body’s intuitive way of getting seemingly simple yet very important things done. In addition to moving waste, it also moves the urine from the kidney to the bladder. And bile from the gallbladder to the duodenum.
All of this is done with a handy tool called the peristaltic pump. This mechanism is so efficient that engineers have copied its function for use in various machines. The digestive system starts using its peristaltic pump from the moment you swallow. (If you thought gravity was responsible for moving food town your throat, you were quite mistaken.) Peristalsis works food down the esophagus, delivering it to the stomach. The stomach then pushes the food into the small intestine for digestion. During this phase, the small intestine removes gas from the digestive system in order to avoid buildup. You might feel the peristaltic pump working at this stage.
Next, the food is pushed into the large intestine. The large intestine contracts and relaxes so that the waste—or fecal matter—is moved to the rectum. The fecal matter is stored there until enough of it builds up that one last peristaltic hurrah gives you the urge to poop and move the waste out of your body.
This is one of the main functions of peristalsis: its importance in digestion and getting rid of waste. With this newfound knowledge, it’s easy to see how problems with these involuntary contractions manifest as problems each reader has undoubtedly experienced at one point or another. For instance, if the contractions occur too quickly, then the digestive system has no time to absorb the water from the waste. The result? Diarrhea.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, if the colon cramps this can prevent peristalsis from working effectively. In this case, the waste sits and the digestive system absorbs too much water, leading to constipation. Some studies have shown that caffeine, alcohol and tobacco consumption contribute to messed up peristalsis. Fast-moving contractions can also occur in those with excessive nerve endings in their intestines, leading to sensitivity to certain foods. In order to maintain healthy peristalsis, it helps to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as natural probiotics. As long as you’re feeding it well, your body will take care of the rest. It knows what it’s doing.
You might want to read What are Good Carbs and Bad Carbs, just to dispel the truth!