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

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 »

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 »