What is the function of the stomach?

Written by nancy steely
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What is the function of the stomach?
(stomach image by Alison Bowden from Fotolia.com)

The stomach is a hollow organ composed of several strong muscular layers. It is located under the rib cage and connected at each opening to the oesophagus and the small intestine, respectively. The stomach stores, mixes and digests the food that we eat and acts to protect us from infectious organisms we may have ingested.

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Function

After food is chewed and moistened in the mouth, it passes through the oesophagus into the stomach. This is the second step in the digestion of everything you consume. Food is mixed with stomach acid and enzymes to break the food down into smaller pieces. This combination of food and stomach "juices" is called chyme. The stomach also stores food temporarily, releasing chyme in small amounts into the small intestine, where it is further broken down into nutrients to be absorbed into the body.

Significance

In addition to breaking down food, stomach acid and enzymes also help to kill bacteria or other infectious organisms that you may have eaten. The stomach is protected from corrosive stomach acid by a layer of mucus lining its walls. This mucus layer also protects other internal organs from stomach acid. When the mucus lining is damaged, stomach acids can burn through the lining of the stomach and damage other organs in the body.

Considerations

The majority of stomach ulcers are caused by a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori. Symptoms of ulcers include a burning sensation in the stomach, feelings of "hunger" or aching a few hours after eating or during the night, or dark, black-coloured stool. Antacids and medications that block stomach acid production are not adequate treatment for stomach ulcers caused by H. pylori. These treatments prevent stomach acid from damaging the lining of the stomach, but you need antibiotics to kill H. pylori. If you have symptoms of a stomach ulcer, talk to your doctor and make sure that you are tested for the presence of H. pylori.

Warning

Stomach cancer is fairly rare and usually affects people over the age of 70. Risk factors include smoking, a family history of stomach cancer, a diet high in fatty, smoked or salted foods, and a history of stomach ulcers. Unfortunately, stomach cancer doesn't show clear symptoms. You may experience nausea, feelings of fullness or bloating, or stomach discomfort---all of which can also be symptoms of ulcers or indigestion. If you are concerned, talk to your doctor about your risk factors for stomach cancer and whether you need to be tested.

Prevention/Solution

Eat a diet low in fat and high in fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains to support stomach and digestive health. Avoid alcohol, which can irritate the stomach lining and cause inflammation, or gastritis. Liquorice tablets can help to soothe and protect the mucosal lining of the stomach. Chew 1 or 2 tablets containing 380 mg of liquorice when you experience stomach discomfort. Glycyrrhizinic acid is a component in liquorice that can increase blood pressure, so be sure to use only supplements that are labelled as "deglycyrrizinated licorice." Do not take any herbal or over-the-counter remedies without first discussing them with your health care provider.

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