Gastric motility - Function & how to keep it in balance

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Gastric motility - The rhythm of your gastrointestinal tract

"Motility? Does not affect me!" Many people think so when they hear this largely unknown term for the first time. In fact, motility is essential to each of us - and that's a good thing. Motility is the precisely coordinated movements of the stomach and intestine.

What is motility exactly?

In order for the body to be able to utilize the individual nutrients in the best possible way, it must break down the food into its smallest building blocks. Normally, the food stays in the stomach for about three hours before entering the small intestine and then into the colon. How fast the stomach is emptied depends also on the composition of the food.

In order to achieve the maximum effect, the digestive juices must already be well mixed with the food in the stomach. When the chyme reaches the intestines, it is further decomposed by the digestive enzymes from the pancreas. But that alone is not enough: In addition, it is essential that the decomposed food is transported in a controlled manner after each digestive step. 

This is precisely why motility in the digestive tract plays such an important role: the stomach and intestine are able to move actively - in response to the position and amount of food to be digested. 

The peristaltic contractions, wave-like muscle contractions, of the intestine assist in moving the chyme further along the gastrointestinal tract. This coordinated contraction and relaxation is reminiscent of the movement of an earthworm. How much the muscles move depends on the amount and position of the food. Segmental - limited to individual areas of the stomach or intestine - movements mix the food well. Gastric juice and digestive enzymes are distributed all over the chyme.

This motility is not coordinated directly by the brain, but rather by the enteric nervous system, that is the network of nerves in the digestive tract that comprises about as many nerve cells as the spinal cord. The enteric nervous system can act independently of the brain, but is - of course - connected to it and signals can be exchanged on both sides.

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What impacts your motility?

The movement of the muscles in the gastrointestinal tract can be triggered negatively by many factors. For example, an impairment can be observed in people with functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIS), triggered in people with high stress levels or an unfavourable diet. 

Functional gastrointestinal disorders 

Functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIS) such as irritable bowel syndrome or irritable stomach are often associated with dysmotility. People with irritable stomach suffer above all from a feeling of fullness, early satiety and upper abdominal pain. People with irritable bowel syndrome suffer mostly from abdominal pain, bloating and distention. The symptoms of both disorders are very similar and overlap in 30 % of patients. Read more about this in “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” and “Irritable Stomach”.

Psychological factors 

The psyche can also "hit the stomach" and trigger disturbances in muscle movement. This could be because the body releases more stress hormones during high emotional pressure.

What happens if the motility is disturbed?

If the motility of the gastrointestinal tract is disturbed, it can result in the following: the transport of the chyme is impaired. 

Stomach muscles in the upper part of the stomach are too tight to adjust in volume to provide physiological space for the supplied food. Muscles in the lower part of the stomach which leads to the small intestine are too slack to transport the food towards the intestine.

 In case of disturbed motility, many people experience several complaints at the same time. These can include:  

  • Feeling of fullness  
  • Bloating 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Heartburn 
  • Stomach pain 
  • Stomach cramps 

The treatment of dysmotility 

An effective therapy for dysmotility must first and foremost focus on the underlying cause. Once the triggering factor has been alleviated or the causative disorder has been identified and treated, the symptoms can be alleviated and a coordinated movement of the gastrointestinal tract restored. 

A balanced lifestyle includes physical activity as well as adapted diet.  

A general statement about which foods trigger symptoms and which not is difficult. Every person is different - especially when it comes to nutrition. Therefore an individual diet plan may be tried.  

Follow your physician’s advice and develop a personalised dietary plan. You may also try to 

  • establish an eating routine that includes breakfast, a meal in the middle of the day and a meal in the evening as well as appropriate snacks between meals  
  • eat small portions 
  • reduce the time between meals and avoid missing a meal 
  • chew slowly and spend a lot of time eating 
  • avoid eating on the go and in a hurry – try to take your meal at the table 
  • drink enough 
  • avoid overeating and fasting 

If these measures do not help, one can try – under medical supervision - a strict diet recommended otherwise to IBS patients for 6 weeks.

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Stressful time / When stress at work makes the stomach turn around

Stress at work has become part of everyday life for many people. In such situations, a small change, like the passage of a gas bubble, can trigger symptoms and feel much worse when a person is stressed and exhausted. Stress can not only create psychological problems like burn outs, it can also affect the gastrointestinal tract.

Learn More

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