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

Considering a gluten-free diet

The gluten-free diet is not just a fad. People with celiac disease must eat food without the protein gluten. In addition, people with nonceliac gluten sensitivity can benefit from the diet. The diet requires followers to become gluten detectives, looking for the ingredients wheat, rye, or barley and their derivatives on food labels. It also requires looking for gluten in hidden sources, such as natural flavorings and even medicines. More »

Heartburn medication side effects: Should you worry?

Proton pump inhibitor (PPI) medications such as omeprazole and lansoprazole are the most effective  treatment for treating heartburn. But long-term use of a PPI may increase the risk for certain infections and reduce the absorption of some nutrients. This will probably not cause illness in most people.  Some people may be able to stop taking a PPI and switch to a different medication if there is a concern. In some people, the risk of stopping a PPIs might be greater than the relatively small and uncertain risks of continuing to take it. (Locked) More »

What you should know about: PPIs

Proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) are drugs that are often prescribed for people who suffer from chronic heartburn or another digestive disorder. They are available over the counter and by prescription. They work by reducing the production of stomach acid. PPIs are generally safe when used in the short term; however, they do carry some risks in the long term, such as hip fracture, pneumonia, and a type of life-threatening gastrointestinal infection. PPIs may also interfere with clopidogrel (Plavix), a blood thinner. (Locked) More »

Stomach-soothing steps for heartburn

Millions of Americans suffer from chronic heartburn, usually caused by a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Many simple self-help steps can keep GERD in check, including changing your eating and sleeping habits and losing weight. When self-help fails, the most effective and long-lasting solution is a class of medications called a proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). PPIs are now available over-the-counter. (Locked) More »

What you should know about: Probiotics

  "Good" bacteria found in food and dietary supplements may help ward off illness. Called probiotics, these bacteria been shown to secrete protective substances that turn on the immune system and prevent pathogens from taking hold. The strongest evidence for the benefits of probiotics is in treating diseases caused by harmful bacteria in the gut that cause severe diarrhea. When beneficial organisms coat the surface of the colon, then bad bacteria are blocked from attaching to and invading the wall of the colon. Foods that contain probiotics include yogurt, a fermented dairy drink called kefir, and fermented vegetables such as pickles and sauerkraut. They are also available in pill form. Common dosages for adults range from 5 to 10 billion colony-forming units per day, in a single daily dose, with or without food.   (Locked) More »

When to stop colorectal screening

The United States Preventive Services Task Force advises that everyone be checked for colon cancer from age 50 to age 75, and that testing should stop after age 85. It's a more individual decision for those ages 76 to 85. (Locked) More »