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

Diverticulosis and diverticulitis

Diverticula are pouch-like structures that form in the wall of the large intestine. When the large intestine contains diverticula, the condition is called diverticulosis. It is usually harmless and causes no problems. When these pouches bleed or become inflamed or infected, the condition is called diverticulitis. Diverticulitis can cause a variety of symptoms, from abdominal pain and cramping to fever. More »

Upset stomach? Don't write it off

Dyspepsia is a frequent or persistent upset stomach, with pain in the upper stomach, filling up quickly with meals, or bloating after meals. Various things can contribute to dyspepsia, such as over-the-counter pain medications or infection with a stomach bacterium. In a quarter of cases, no underlying cause is identified. Men with dyspepsia and red flags like weight loss, fatigue, blood in the stool, vomiting, loss of appetite, or pain or difficulty swallowing should see a doctor. Otherwise, it may help to identify and avoid foods that seem to trigger dyspepsia, such as fatty foods, and eating smaller but more frequent meals. (Locked) More »

Peptic ulcer

Peptic ulcers are sores in the lining of the stomach and the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine). They affect more than 4 million people in the United States each year; 1 in 10 individuals develop a peptic ulcer at some time. Peptic ulcer can occur at any age. Duodenal ulcers usually appear between ages 30 and 50 and are more common in men than women. Stomach ulcers tend to occur later in life, after age 60, and affect women more often than men. The cause of most stomach and duodenal ulcers is infection with a type of bacteria called Helicobacter pylori. Other irritants include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen, alcohol, coffee with or without caffeine, and smoking. More »

Ulcerative colitis

Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease. Inflammation in the lining of the large intestine (the colon) causes ulcers to form. This can cause bleeding, diarrhea, weight loss, and fatigue. Ulcerative colitis is an autoimmune disease. That means the immune system, which normally helps fight off infections, mistakenly attacks the lining of the colon and rectum. Ulcerative colitis almost always involves the rectum. When confined to the rectum, the condition is called ulcerative proctitis. In most people, the inflammation spreads to involve more of the colon, often the entire colon. More »

Acute pancreatitis overview

The pancreas is the large gland located in the upper part of the abdomen, behind the stomach. It produces digestive enzymes and hormones. Acute pancreatitis is a sudden inflammation of this gland. During acute pancreatitis, enzymes that are normally released into the digestive tract begin to damage the pancreas itself. The gland becomes swollen and inflamed. As a result, digestion slows down and becomes painful. Other body functions can be affected. The pancreas can become permanently damaged and scarred if attacks are severe, prolonged, or frequent. Several things are known to trigger acute pancreatitis: More »

Celiac disease

Celiac disease is a genetic, autoimmune disease. The immune system mistakenly recognizes gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, as "foreign." When people with celiac disease eat foods containing gluten, the immune system attacks the gluten when it gets into the small intestine. As the immune system wages war against gluten, it damages small, fingerlike projections in the small intestine called villi. Villi that make it easier for the body to absorb nutrients from food. As villi become eroded and flattened, they have trouble absorbing nutrients. The result is diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms, as well as a host of health problems related to malnutrition, including weight loss, anemia, osteoporosis, infertility, nerve problems such as ataxia (loss of coordination), and even certain types of cancer. More »

Chronic pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis refers to severe or recurring inflammation of the pancreas. This large gland is located in the upper part of the abdomen, behind the stomach. It produces digestive enzymes and hormones such as insulin and glucagon, which are responsible for controlling blood sugar. This long-term inflammation causes permanent damage to the pancreas, leading to digestive problems and nutritional deficiencies. Causes of chronic pancreatitis include: More »

Crohn's disease

Crohn's disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that affects the digestive tract, usually the small and large intestines. This causes an array of digestive and other symptoms. Once the condition begins, it lasts a lifetime. The inflammation most often injures the final section of the small intestine, called the ileum, and the beginning of the large intestine. However, the disease can affect any part of the digestive tract, from the mouth to the anus. It can also affect other parts of the body, such as the eyes and joints. Exactly what triggers the inflammation that starts Crohn's disease is still something of a medical mystery. A viral or bacterial infection may start the process by activating the immune system. Normally, the immune response fades away when the infection is over. In some people, though, the immune system stays active and creates inflammation in the intestines even after the infection goes away. More »

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity

Many people who have celiac-like symptoms repeatedly test negative for celiac disease yet respond well to a gluten-free diet. Specialists now recognize that these people—between 1% and 3% of the population—may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Symptoms of gluten sensitivity include: Gluten sensitivity is a baffling condition because it has been difficult to understand how gluten could trigger such a host of seemingly unrelated symptoms. One theory is that gluten sensitivity is part of the "undersea" portion of the "celiac iceberg." More »