Your oesophagus is the long stretchy tube your food takes from your mouth to your stomach. It is a very muscular tube that pushes the food down in a process called peristalsis. Peristalsis is an involuntary movement – you cannot usually feel it and you cannot control it, it happens all by itself! When the muscles in your oesophagus move, they look like a wave or a worm as it moves. Muscles contract (squeeze very tightly) one after the other, from top to bottom until the food has been moved all the way along. Your food gets pushed down your oesophagus when you eat, from top to bottom, all the way to your stomach.
The whole process of peristalsis normally takes about 9 – 10 seconds. If you swallow a bit of food that is too big or a lump of food that you haven’t chewed really well, or some really dry food, it can get stuck in your oesophagus. When this happens, the muscles in the area where the food is stuck work really hard, squeezing the food until it moves further down your oesophagus, no matter how long it takes!
You have 22 different muscles in your oesophagus. These muscles are so strong, you can swallow food no matter what position you are in and it will get to your stomach. While it is certainly easier and a lot more comfortable to swallow food when you are upright, you can swallow food even if you are standing on your head!
The entrance to your oesophagus is at the back of your mouth, in your throat. It shares the space with your trachea (your windpipe) which is why food or drink sometimes ‘go down the wrong way’ and make you cough! But why doesn’t this happen every time you eat or drink? When you swallow, a small flap of tissue called the epiglottis closes over your trachea and makes sure the food or drink goes down the correct pipe. This explains why food ‘goes down the wrong way’ more often if you try to eat and talk at the same time!
Where your oesophagus ends, at the beginning of your stomach, there is a ring of muscle that can contract very tightly and close off your oesophagus. This muscle is very important as it protects your oesophagus from the acids in your stomach that break down the food you have swallowed. If this muscle is damaged or is weak, acid can get into your oesophagus and cause damage which can be quite painful. Sometimes you will hear adults talk about ‘reflux’ of ‘heartburn’ which actually has nothing to do with your heart - it is the acids from your stomach entering your oesophagus.
If you eat too much or eat something that is contaminated with bacteria, you may vomit. Vomiting happens when the food and acid mixture (the chyme) in your stomach are forced back up your oesophagus and out of your mouth. It is peristalsis in reverse! You can’t help vomiting if you are ill. Unfortunately the acids and bile from your stomach can cause damage to your oesophagus and to your teeth when you vomit, so it’s not something you want to do too often. Stay healthy!
So,, how do you take care of your oesophagus? Eat slowly, with sensible bites that you have chewed really well and you should be fine. Just remember – don’t talk with your mouth full or you could end up with a fit of coughing!
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