Digestive Health

Your digestive system breaks down foods and liquids into their chemical components—carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and the like—that the body can absorb as nutrients and use for energy or to build or repair cells.

Food's journey through the digestive system begins in the mouth. It passes down the esophagus and into the stomach, where digestion begins. Next stop: the small intestine, which in the average person is more than 20 feet long. The small intestine further breaks down food, absorbs nutrients, and sends them into the bloodstream.

The remaining watery food residue moves into your large intestine, a muscular tube about 4 feet long. As undigested food passes through it, bacteria feed off the remnants. The wall of the large intestine soaks up most of the remaining water. Any undigested food that remains is expelled by a highly efficient disposal system.

Like all complicated machinery, the digestive tract doesn't always run smoothly. In some people, the problem is genetic. In others, the immune system mistakenly attacks the digestive system, causing various digestive woes. What we eat, and how we eat, can also throw off digestive health.

Common ailments of the digestive system include:

  • heartburn, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • peptic ulcer
  • diverticular disease
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • gallstones
  • celiac disease
  • constipation
  • diarrhea

Keeping your digestive system healthy

There are several ways to keep your digestive system healthy:

  • Don't smoke.
  • Keep your weight in the healthy range.
  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet.
  • Exercise several times a week, if not every day.
  • Learn different ways to reduce stress.

Digestive Health Articles

Attack of the gallstones

Gallstones form because there is too much cholesterol in your bile, a fluid made by your liver to digest fat. Gallstone attacks occur when they become too big or too abundant and block the normal flow of bile. If too much bile gets trapped, the gallbladder can become inflamed, and bile also can back up and enter the blood, which can cause jaundice. While there is no surefire way to prevent gallstones, people can reduce their risk by adopting a diet that cuts out high-fat foods in favor of more plant-based foods, exercising more to maintain a healthy weight. More »

Is something in your diet causing diarrhea?

Diarrhea may be caused by a number of factors. When it comes to diet, foods that are sugary, fatty, spicy, or fried can cause loose stools or make them worse. Dairy foods and foods with gluten can also cause diarrhea. Identifying foods and drinks that may be causing loose stools, and then eliminating those foods or drinks from the diet, can help reduce diarrhea. Other causes of diarrhea include bacterial or viral infection; surgery to the digestive system; alcohol abuse; medication side effects; and medical conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. (Locked) More »

Clogged arteries in the gut?

Just like the arteries that supply blood to the heart, arteries in the intestines can become clogged with cholesterol-filled plaque. Known as intestinal angina, the condition is marked by pain that occurs about 30 minutes after eating and lasts one to two hours. This uncommon problem is more prevalent in women, particularly current or former smokers. People with intestinal angina often develop “food fear,” which causes them to lose substantial amounts of weight. Treatment involves restoring blood flow to the intestines, usually by threading a catheter through a vessel to the blockage and inserting a tiny mesh tube (stent) to prop open the artery.  (Locked) More »

Concern about recurring hiccups

Hiccups are often caused by many everyday situations, including distention of the stomach (which can be the result of overeating), swallowing air, or drinking carbonated beverages. They usually go away on their own, but episodes that last longer than 48 hours could be a sign of certain medical problems.  (Locked) More »

Too much of a good thing?

Proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs), which are used to treat a variety of gastrointestinal problems, are the third most popular drug in the United States. But recent studies show their constant use may be linked to an increased risk of heart attack, fractures, and dementia. This has shed light on the potential dangers of long-term medication, especially those like PPIs that help to manage an ongoing condition.  (Locked) More »

Coming to terms with constipation

Constipation is rarely the symptom of a serious illness but can be triggered by medications or disruptions to one’s daily routine. Increased dietary fiber, regular exercise, and osmotic laxatives that bulk up stools can help alleviate constipation. (Locked) More »

Constipation: A connection to heart disease?

Chronic constipation has been linked to a slightly higher risk of dying of cardiovascular disease. One possible explanation: infrequent bowel movements lead to straining, which can raise blood pressure, stressing the heart and blood vessels. Many medications (especially painkillers) can promote constipation. Eating more fiber, drinking plenty of fluids, and getting regular exercise can help.  (Locked) More »

Should you keep taking that heartburn medication?

Everyone gets a little heartburn now and then. But if it happens more than three times a week, it’s time to do something about it. One way to treat heartburn is with proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs), which help reduce stomach acid. They’re generally considered safe in the short term. When taken long-term, PPIs are associated with an increased risk of hip fractures, pneumonia, dementia, heart attack, and chronic kidney disease. People taking PPIs should talk to their doctors about whether they really need to continue taking them. (Locked) More »