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

The good side of bacteria

Probiotics are good bacteria that keep the gut healthy and help fight infections and inflammation. Some research suggests that certain probiotics help relieve symptoms of gut-related conditions like inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Fermented foods are the best sources of probiotics, such as yogurt, pickles, sauerkraut, and sourdough bread. More »

Gut check: How the microbiome may mediate heart health

The trillions of bacteria in a person’s intestines, called the gut microbiota, may mediate some of the risk factors that affect cardiovascular health. Some bacteria break down cholesterol. Others create compounds that regulate blood pressure, affect hormones involved in diabetes, and dampen inflammation. But the feasibility of changing a person’s microbiome remains unclear, which means any potential microbiome-based therapies for heart disease are still years away. More »

What is a hiatal hernia?

A hiatal hernia occurs when the stomach slides through a natural hole in the diaphragm, which can lead to acid reflux. (Locked) More »

Don’t get upset about indigestion

It’s common for indigestion to become more frequent and severe with age, a condition called chronic dyspepsia or recurring indigestion. While most flare-ups can be treated with over-the-counter remedies, people can stop recurring problems by adopting lifestyle measures, such as reducing stress, avoiding excess alcohol, quitting smoking, losing extra weight, and eating smaller meals. (Locked) More »

Gum disease linked to an increased risk for cancer

People with a history of periodontal (gum) disease were 43% more likely to develop esophageal cancer and 52% more likely to develop gastric (stomach) cancer, according to a study published online July 20, 2020, by the journal Gut. More »

Aspirin linked to fewer digestive tract cancers

Scientists continue to explore the health benefits vs. risks of aspirin therapy. One new analysis suggests that regularly taking aspirin may protect against several types of digestive tract cancers, such as bowel, stomach, gallbladder, esophageal, pancreatic, and liver cancers. More »

Tips to avoid constipation

There are many ways one can try to avoid constipation. For example, lifestyle remedies may help—such as increasing dietary fiber, getting regular exercise, and drinking three to six cups of water per day. If those approaches don’t work, doctors recommend using fiber supplements, such as psyllium husk (Metamucil), methylcellulose (Citrucel), or wheat dextrin (Benefiber). Another supplement that might help is magnesium. When all strategies fail, it may be time to try over-the-counter medication. One option is an osmotic laxative such as polyethylene glycol (Miralax). (Locked) More »

Heartburn medication update

Concerns about health risks tied to heartburn medications can make it tough to choose the right treatment. Doctors say it’s generally best to try pill-free strategies first, such as losing weight and avoiding foods or drinks that trigger heartburn. If those measures don’t work, the next step is to use antacids. If antacids are ineffective, one can try a medication called an H2 blocker. If that doesn’t help after a few weeks, one can move on to a proton-pump inhibitor. If there’s still no relief after a few weeks, it’s time to speak with a doctor. More »

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is commonly called heartburn. This digestive disorder most often causes a burning and sometimes squeezing sensation in the mid-chest. In GERD, acid and digestive enzymes from the stomach flow backwards into the esophagus, the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. This backward flow of stomach juices is called "reflux". These caustic stomach juices inflame the lining of the esophagus. If GERD is not treated, it can permanently damage the esophagus. A muscular ring seals the esophagus from the stomach. This ring is called the esophageal sphincter. Normally, the sphincter opens when you swallow, allowing food into your stomach. The rest of the time, it squeezes tight to prevent food and acid in the stomach from backing up into the esophagus. (Locked) More »