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

Breaking up with your favorite foods

Eating certain foods sometimes triggers indigestion or heartburn symptoms, particularly as people age. For example, consuming foods with certain natural sugars such as lactose may lead to cramping, diarrhea, bloating, and gas. Eating peppers, tomato sauces, and many other foods can worsen heartburn caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). When one must remove trigger foods from the diet, there are alternatives that can also be satisfying, such as lactose-free dairy products. When removing a food isn’t possible, some tricks—such as adding a dollop of sour cream—can help reduce the heat in spicy dishes. (Locked) More »

Keep your digestion moving

Over time, everyone’s digestive system works less efficiently and people can develop food intolerance or begin taking medications that can affect digestion. These changes can create problems like gas, bloating, cramps, and constipation. By identifying the reasons for the digestive issues, managing them becomes easier and can help keep the entire system running smoothly. (Locked) More »

Barium Swallow (Upper Gastrointestinal Series or Upper GI Series)

A barium swallow, or upper GI series, is an x-ray test used to examine the upper digestive tract (the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine). Because these organs are normally not visible on x-rays, you need to swallow barium, a liquid that does show up on x-rays. The barium temporarily coats the lining of the esophagus, stomach, and intestine, making the outline of these organs visible on the x-ray pictures. This test is useful for diagnosing cancers, ulcers, problems that cause narrowing of the esophagus, some causes of inflammation in the intestine, and some swallowing problems. Tell your doctor and the x-ray technicians if there is any chance you could be pregnant. If you have diabetes and take insulin, discuss this with your doctor before the test. Stop eating and drinking the night before your test. This is important because food in your stomach or intestine could prevent the doctors from seeing a clear outline of these structures on the x-rays. Usually it isn't a problem for you to take your regular pills, but you should check with your doctor. (Locked) More »

Cholecystectomy

Cholecystectomy is the surgical removal of the gallbladder, the small saclike organ located near the liver in the upper right side of the abdomen. It is attached to the main duct that carries bile from the liver into the intestine. Bile helps your body to break down and absorb fats. The gallbladder temporarily stores bile from the liver. When you eat, the gallbladder contracts, and squeezes extra bile into the intestine to aid digestion. There are two ways to remove the gallbladder: Over 90% of the time, laparoscopic surgery is used because it requires a shorter hospital stay, is less painful, and has a shorter recovery time compared to traditional surgery. Traditional surgery is usually used because the person has significant abdominal scarring from prior surgery, severe inflammation, unusual anatomy, or other factors that make surgery with a laparoscope very difficult and riskier. (Locked) More »

Endoscopy

Endoscopy describes many procedures that look inside the body using some type of endoscope, a flexible tube with a small TV camera and a light on one end and an eyepiece on the other. The endoscope allows doctors to examine the inside of certain tube-like structures in the body. Many endoscopes transmit the doctor's view to a video screen. Most endoscopes have attachments that permit doctors to take fluid or tissue samples for laboratory testing. Upper endoscopy allows a doctor to see inside the esophagus, stomach and top parts of the small intestine. Bronchoscopy examines the large airways inside the lungs (bronchi). Sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy examine different parts of the lower digestive tract. Each type of endoscopy uses a slightly different endoscope with a different name — an upper endoscope for upper endoscopy, a bronchoscope for bronchoscopy, a sigmoidoscope for sigmoidoscopy and a colonoscope for colonoscopy. Other endoscopes allow doctors to see inside the abdomen and inside joints through small incisions. (Locked) More »

Upper Endoscopy (Esophagogastroduodenoscopy or EGD)

This test inspects your esophagus, stomach and the first section of intestine (the duodenum) using an endoscope. An upper endoscopy allows the doctor to explore the cause of such symptoms as difficulty swallowing, abdominal pain, vomiting up blood, or passing blood in the stool. It can also diagnose irritation, ulcers, and cancers of the lining of the esophagus and stomach. During this type of endoscopy, the doctor can also take biopsy samples of tissue. Don't eat or drink anything for eight hours before this test. It's also best to stop taking aspirin and other NSAIDs for several days beforehand, to reduce the chances of bleeding should your doctor need to take a biopsy. Ask your doctor if you should avoid taking any other medicines on the day of the test. If you have diabetes, talk with your doctor about ways to avoid low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) since you will be fasting. If you wear dentures, remove them before the test. Arrange for a ride home because the medicine given for this test will make you drowsy. The nurse will place an intravenous catheter into your arm. During the procedure, the nurse will be monitoring your heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen content of your blood. You'll probably be given a sedative through an IV. This medicine may prevent you from remembering the test; it might even make you sleep through it. (Locked) More »

Preventing seasonal maladies

Older adults are especially susceptible to winter illnesses. This is partly because of a weakened immune system. Common winter illnesses include the common cold, sinusitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, influenza, and stomach bugs. To ward off winter illness, one should get the proper vaccines, wash hands before eating or touching the face, carry hand sanitizer, avoid close contact with people who’re under the weather, and stay away from shared food like potlucks and buffets. More »

New thinking on peripheral neuropathy

Doctors are learning that neuropathy can cause many more problems than just numbness and tingling in the feet and hands. Neuropathy of the autonomic nerves to the heart or blood vessels can cause low blood pressure, perceived as chronic fatigue and faintness or dizziness. Damage to nerve fibers serving the gastrointestinal tract may cause bloating, nausea, digestion problems, constipation, or diarrhea. These are often labeled irritable bowel syndrome. Autonomic neuropathy less often affects the bladder and sexual function. (Locked) More »

The state of gas

The average person produces between ½ and 1 liter of gas per day, and passes gas about 10 to 20 times during the day. However, what a person eats—or more specifically how the body digests these foods—can increase gas production. The more common gas-producing foods contain short-chain carbohydrates called FODMAPs. Working with a nutritionist to identify specific problem foods and adjusting their amounts can help control excess gas. (Locked) More »