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

Healthy gut, healthy heart?

The gut microbiome refers to the genes that govern the trillions of microbes in the human intestinal tract. These bacteria and other microbes make an array of substances that influence the body’s vascular, nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. These substances play a role in regulating blood pressure and blood sugar and the formation of artery-clogging plaque (atherosclerosis). Dietary habits that are helpful for preventing heart disease—such as avoiding red meat, keeping salt intake low, and eating lots of fiber-rich vegetables and whole grains—also have favorable effects on the gut microbiome. More »

How can I treat stubborn hiccups?

Hiccups that don’t respond to simple home remedies may respond to prescription medications, and may possibly respond to marijuana, acupuncture, or hypnosis. (Locked) More »

What is a leaky gut?

In recent years, scientists have discovered that the inner lining of the intestine can become leaky, and allow toxins from microbes (and, sometimes, the microbes themselves) to get into the bloodstream. This can cause inflammation. (Locked) More »

What causes hiccups?

It’s unclear what causes hiccups. However, they don’t typically last long. Home remedies for hiccups include rubbing the back of the neck, breathing into a paper bag, sipping ice water, and swallowing a spoonful of dry sugar. (Locked) More »

Gut reaction: A limited role for digestive enzyme supplements

Prescription enzyme products can help when natural production is low because of a health condition such as chronic pancreatitis or cystic fibrosis. Likewise, taking an over-the-counter lactase supplement (such as Lactaid or Lactrase) can help manage lactose intolerance, and taking an alpha-galactosidase supplement (such as Beano or Bean Relief) may reduce gas and bloating for people who have a hard time digesting the sugars in beans. But for other common gut problems, like heartburn or irritable bowel syndrome, there is little evidence that nonprescription digestive enzymes are helpful. (Locked) More »

Should I be worried about a pancreatic cyst?

Many cysts of the pancreas are discovered by accident during a CT scan performed for other reasons. Although most cysts are noncancerous, some show features that are worrisome and need further evaluation. (Locked) More »

The growing role of probiotics

The “good” bacteria called probiotics can help maintain a healthy gut, ward off illnesses, and maintain a smooth digestion. Fermented foods like yogurt, pickles, sourdough bread, and certain cheeses are the best sources of probiotics, and men should try to add more of them to their daily diet. (Locked) More »

When your colonoscopy reveals that you have diverticulosis, hemorrhoids, or both

Many people have diverticula and hemorrhoids without symptoms. Diverticula are pouchlike structures that sometimes form in the muscular wall of the colon and bulge outward. In some people, diverticula bleed or get infected (diverticulitis). Hemorrhoids are pillow-like clusters of veins in the lining of the lower part of the rectum and anus, which help play a role in preventing stool leakage. When they become enlarged, however, they are anything but helpful and can even contribute to some leakage in addition to pain, itching, and bleeding. More »