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

Stomach bug

The norovirus ia a group of viruses that infect the stomach and intestines. Find out how one pesky virus could ruin your summer vacation — if you're not careful. (Locked) More »

Gut microbes may affect heart disease risk

Researchers are exploring a possible link between gut microbes that live in the digestive system and the development of atherosclerotic plaque. Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic first took blood samples from two groups of people, those who had recently had a heart attack or stroke and those who hadn't. Blood from those with cardiovascular disease carried higher levels of choline, betaine, and trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). All three are breakdown products of lecithin, a dietary fat. In step two, the researchers determined that the body converts dietary lecithin and choline into TMAO. They also determined that feeding mice lecithin or choline promotes the development of atherosclerotic plaque. To identify the source of TMAO production, the researchers gave mice a course of antibiotics, which wipes out many gut bacteria. When these mice were fed a diet rich in lecithin, they didn't make TMAO, and there was no increase in atherosclerosis. (Locked) More »

Novel therapy for C. difficile infections

Recurrent infections with Clostridium difficile bacteria are one of the main causes of intestinal distress.  Antibiotics are capable of killing many of its bacterial competitors, but often not C. difficile, which allows C. difficile to run wild. Mild C. difficile cases are typically treated with the antibiotic metronidazole (Flagyl), and more serious cases with vancomycin (Vancocin). Both drugs are capable of killing the active form of the bacterium, but the spore form may survive. As a result, in about a fifth of cases, the spores spring to life once treatment with the antibiotic has stopped. AfterC. difficile recurs, over half of all patients may develop chronic, and potentially fatal, infections. Now, some doctors think they've found an effective, if somewhat off-putting, treatment for patients whose intestinal microbiomes have been compromised by C. difficile infections. Fecal transplant, a procedure in which feces from a healthy donor are transferred into the gut of a sick patient, is supposed to restore the damaged microbial community in the patient's intestine. The idea of fecal transplant isn't new — the first case report was published in 1958 — but the popularity of the procedure has increased since 2000. (Locked) More »

Food allergies and food intolerances

Food allergies typically begin in infancy, and can be life-threatening if not outgrown. They are more common in people who have other allergies, eczema, hay fever, or asthma. More than 170 foods have been associated with allergic reactions, but 90% of all cases involve milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, or soy. typically begin in infancy, and can be life-threatening if not outgrown. Food intolerance can cause discomfort but is generally less serious. It usually results from the inability to digest or metabolize a food completely. The symptoms — gas, bloating, nausea, and diarrhea — overlap those of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and food intolerance can trigger episodes of IBS. Both are on the rise but it's important to know the difference. (Locked) More »

Proton-pump inhibitors

Proton-pump inhibitors are the strongest type of medicine available for treating stomach acid. There is some concern about their potential side effects and interactions with other medications. Initially, there was some worry that PPIs might increase the risk of developing stomach cancer. Those concerns were unfounded, but others have taken their place, partly because people often take PPIs on a daily basis for years, so the total exposure to the drug ends up being quite significant. Here's a rundown of the some of the drug interactions and side effects that are causing concern: More »

What to do about gallstones

Women under 40 are at much greater risk of developing gallstones than men, due to the actions of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. More than 25 million people in the United States have gallstones. Fortunately, for most people, gallstones are "silent" — they don't cause major symptoms. When they do act up, there are effective ways to address the problem. More »

Clostridium difficile: An intestinal infection on the rise

A distressing number of patients acquire infections while they are in the hospital. And antibiotic therapy can actually increase the odds of coming down with a hospital-acquired infection, particularly when the cause is a bacterium named Clostridium difficile. Although doctors are working hard to control intestinal infections caused by the bug known as C. diff, the problem is rapidly becoming more common, more serious, and harder to treat. More »