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

Overdoing acetaminophen

Accidental overdoses and potential liver damage have raised concerns about the safety of acetaminophen. As a result, the FDA is considering lowering the recommended safe daily limit. More »

GERD: Heartburn and more

Millions of people suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Lifestyle changes such as avoiding certain foods can help control symptoms, and there are also several effective medications available. More »

Comparing the Side Effects of Prostatectomy vs. Radiation Therapy

H. pylori Infection May Aggravate GI Injury in Patients Taking Low-dose AspirinDoctors commonly prescribe low-dose aspirin for the prevention of heart disease, but it may also be responsible for some potentially serious side effects when taken frequently. Among the most common of these are gastrointestinal erosions and ulcers. A recent study in The American Journal of Gastroenterology sought to determine whether certain people taking low-dose aspirin — specifically, people infected with Helicobacter pylori, a common bacterium that can cause ulcers — are more susceptible to gastrointestinal erosions and ulcers than people who are not infected with H. pylori. Researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and Baylor College of Medicine recruited 61 healthy volunteers between the ages of 18 and 61. Of these, 29 volunteers were infected with H. pylori. Forty-six of the volunteers were then randomly selected to receive low-dose aspirin (either 81 mg daily or 325 mg every three days), while 15 received a placebo. More »

H. pylori Infection May Aggravate GI Injury in Patients Taking Low-dose Aspirin

Doctors commonly prescribe low-dose aspirin for the prevention of heart disease, but it may also be responsible for some potentially serious side effects when taken frequently. Among the most common of these are gastrointestinal erosions and ulcers. A recent study in The American Journal of Gastroenterology sought to determine whether certain people taking low-dose aspirin — specifically, people infected with Helicobacter pylori, a common bacterium that can cause ulcers — are more susceptible to gastrointestinal erosions and ulcers than people who are not infected with H. pylori. Researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and Baylor College of Medicine recruited 61 healthy volunteers between the ages of 18 and 61. Of these, 29 volunteers were infected with H. pylori. Forty-six of the volunteers were then randomly selected to receive low-dose aspirin (either 81 mg daily or 325 mg every three days), while 15 received a placebo. More »

Study Links Smoking to Colorectal Cancer

Lung, mouth, and bladder cancers, among others, are well established as cancers caused by cigarette smoking. A recent study from the American Cancer Society, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute shows that cigarette smoking also raises the risk of dying from colorectal cancer, which is cancer of the colon or rectum. Indeed, the study notes that as many as 12% of colorectal cancer deaths in the United States may be associated with smoking.Researchers analyzed data from 312,332 men and 469,019 women enrolled in the Cancer Prevention Study II. They found that for both men and women, risk of colorectal cancer increased after 20 or more years of smoking. Among men, current smokers were 31% more likely to die from colorectal cancer than nonsmokers; female smokers were 41% more likely than nonsmokers to die from the disease. The risk of death from colorectal cancer rose with the number of years cigarettes were smoked, the number of cigarettes smoked per day, and the number of packs smoked over the years. In addition, the risk of death was higher the younger a person was when he or she started smoking. The association was not confined to cigarette smoke. Those who smoked pipes or cigars also faced a significantly increased risk of death from colorectal cancer.The bright spot of the study was that it showed a benefit from quitting. Twenty years after quitting, men's risk of colorectal cancer death returned to normal. And women who had stopped smoking 10 or more years earlier had the same risk as nonsmokers. The take-home message: If you smoke, stop. If you don't smoke, don't start.   More »

When You Visit Your Doctor - Gallstones

Do you have pain in the mid- or upper-right portion of your abdomen? Do fatty meals worsen the pain? Does the pain occur after eating? Do you have nausea, vomiting, or bloating? Does the pain ever go through to your back? Is the pain steady or intermittent? Have you had fevers? How long does it take for the pain to go away? Do you take any medications (for example, birth-control pills or hormone therapy)? Have you had any rapid weight loss? Have you noticed darkening of your urine or yellowing of the eyes? Abdominal exam Blood tests of liver function Complete blood count Abdominal ultrasound Cholescintigraphy (HIDA scan)   More »