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

Answers about aspirin

Aspirin prevents platelets from clumping together in the bloodstream and forming a clot, which can trigger a heart attack or stroke. That’s why most people with heart disease should take a daily low-dose aspirin. But aspirin can also cause gastrointestinal bleeding. For some people, that danger outweighs the drug’s heart-protecting effects. Although taking heartburn medications and other strategies can lower the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding, some people should not take daily aspirin. A conversation with a trusted doctor is the best way to determine whether to take aspirin, when, what kind, and how much.  More »

Understanding cardiovascular pain

The chest pain that can result from heart disease (angina or a heart attack) can mimic the pain caused by heartburn or pericarditis, or inflammation of the tissues around the heart. Likewise, peripheral artery disease may be mistaken for arthritis of the knees, hip, or back. Understanding the underlying causes, symptoms, and duration of each of these conditions makes it easier to distinguish between them—and deal with the pain calmly and safely. (Locked) More »

Chronic heartburn: Do you need an endoscopy?

Certain people with chronic heartburn can benefit from having endoscopy, a procedure to check the esophagus for signs of more serious problems, like cancer. The risk of esophageal cancer associated with chronic heartburn is small. The benefits of endoscopy must be weighed against the downsides of having the procedure, which include inconvenience, added health care costs, the risk of complications, and increased worry about the risk of cancer. (Locked) More »

Kinder, gentler colonoscopy preps

New options today for clearing out the colon before colonoscopy can make the experience less disagreeable. New "colon preps" require drinking less liquid laxatives, in combination with taking pills. Chilled and flavored liquids may be more palatable. (Locked) More »

Preventing the burn of heartburn

Overindulging during the holidays can lead to uncomfortable heartburn. One way to avoid the burn is to make healthier choices at the table and avoid foods that can trigger heartburn, such as citrus fruits, garlic, tomatoes, and fried foods. For heartburn that doesn’t let up after the holidays end, medications such as antacids and proton-pump inhibitors can help. (Locked) More »

That pain in your side could be diverticular disease

Developing pouchlike structures in the colon wall is known as diverticulosis. This condition is usually harmless. But in up to a quarter of people with diverticulosis, the pouches can become inflamed, get infected, or bleed, a problem known as diverticulitis. Getting adequate dietary fiber helps prevent flare-ups of infection or bleeding. Add fiber gradually as either fiber-rich foods or a supplement, and drink plenty of water with it. If diverticulitis flares up, seek medical care promptly. (Locked) More »

Improve sleep by eating right

Many foods can either interrupt sleep or keep people from falling asleep. Spicy foods and some medications may cause heartburn, and they may stimulate chronic heartburn known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Foods with lactose may cause abdominal cramping, bloating, and diarrhea in people who are lactose intolerant. Food, drinks, and medicines containing caffeine make it hard to fall asleep and cause sleep to be fragmented. And alcohol consumption results in fewer restful stages of sleep. (Locked) More »

Rethinking fiber and hydration can lead to better colon health

Certain foods and medications can cause digestion problems, and likewise low intake of fibrous foods can cause constipation. The most common diet shortfalls are water and fiber. To improve digestion, add more water and fiber to the diet: aim for eight to nine glasses of water and 35 grams of fiber from food per day. Other strategies include exercising more, drinking coffee in moderation, and using probiotics—colonies of good bacteria—from a supplement or from food such as Greek yogurt. (Locked) More »

They found colon polyps: Now what?

Colonoscopy checks the colon for hidden signs of cancer, called polyps. Polyps are growths that could eventually develop into tumors, though relatively few do. The doctor removes polyps during a colonoscopy. After removal of polyps, a procedure called polypectomy, a person must return for a follow-up colon exam in three, five, or 10 years, depending on the number and types of growths that the doctor found and removed. A healthy diet can help prevent cancer. Daily low-dose aspirin, which many people already take to prevent heart attacks, and a diet rich in bone-strengthening calcium, may also reduce overall colon cancer risk. More »