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

Bile Duct Diseases

Your gallbladder stores bile until you eat, then releases bile into your small intestine to help digest food. Bile is made in the liver. It contains a mix of products such as bilirubin, cholesterol, and bile acids and salts. Bile ducts are drainage "pipes" that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder and from the gallbladder to the small intestine. A variety of diseases can affect your bile ducts. All block the bile ducts in some way, which is why the various diseases cause similar symptoms. Gallstones are the most common cause of blocked bile ducts. Stones typically form inside the gallbladder and can block the common bile duct, the drainpipe at the base of the liver. If the duct remains blocked, bilirubin backs up and enters the blood stream. If bacteria above the blockage accumulates and backs up into the liver, it may cause a severe infection called ascending cholangitis. If a gallstone stops in between the gallbladder and the common bile duct, an infection called cholecystitis may occur. Less common causes of blockages include cancers of the bile duct (cholangiocarcinomas) and strictures (scars that narrow the ducts after infection, surgery or inflammation). Other bile duct diseases are uncommon, and include primary sclerosing cholangitis and primary biliary cirrhosis. Typically diagnosed in mid-adulthood, these conditions create ongoing inflammation in the bile duct walls, which can narrow and scar the walls. Primary sclerosing cholangitis is more common in people with inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease). Primary biliary cirrhosis is more common in women. It is sometimes associated with autoimmune diseases such as Sjögren's syndrome, thyroiditis, scleroderma or rheumatoid arthritis. Biliary atresia is a rare form of bile duct blockage that occurs in some infants two weeks to six weeks after birth, a time when the bile ducts have not completed their development normally. The chronic conditions of primary sclerosing cholangitis, primary biliary cirrhosis and biliary atresia can result in inflammation and scarring of the liver, a condition known as cirrhosis. (Locked) More »

Crohn's Disease

Crohn's disease is an inflammatory bowel disease in which inflammation injures the intestines. It is a long-term (chronic) condition. Crohn's disease typically begins between ages 15 and 40. No one knows for sure what triggers the initial intestinal inflammation at the start of Crohn's disease. A viral or bacterial infection may start the process by activating the immune system. The body's immune system stays active and creates inflammation even after the infection goes away. Certain genes passed on from parent to child may increase risk of developing Crohn's disease if the right trigger occurs. Once Crohn's disease begins, it can cause lifelong symptoms that come and go. The inside lining and deeper layers of the intestine wall become inflamed. The lining of the intestine becomes irritated. It can thicken or wear away in spots. This creates ulcers, cracks and fissures. Inflammation can allow an abscess (a pocket of pus) to develop. (Locked) More »

Ulcerative Colitis

Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory disease. It usually begins in the rectum, then worsens to involve some or all of the large intestine. Ulcerative colitis is a lifelong condition. Ulcerative colitis may begin with a breakdown in the lining of the intestine. The inside of the intestine, with its digested food, contains trillions of bacteria. Normally, the lining of the intestines keeps these bacteria from causing an infection of the wall of the intestine. As long as the bacteria are contained, they remain invisible to your immune cells. They do not provoke a reaction. But when the intestine's lining fails, bacteria that usually are harmless can activate your immune system. (Locked) More »

Appendicitis

Appendicitis is an inflammation of the appendix, a small, fingerlike tube that hangs from the lower right side of the large intestine. The purpose of the appendix is not known. It usually becomes inflamed because of an infection or an obstruction in the digestive tract. If untreated, an infected appendix can burst and spread the infection throughout the abdominal cavity and into the bloodstream. (Locked) More »

Diarrhea

Diarrhea is more frequent and more liquid bowel movements than normal. There are many causes. Diarrhea often is caused by an infection with bacteria, viruses or a parasite. Bacteria cause diarrhea either by invading the intestine or by producing a toxin that makes the intestine secrete more water. When the diarrhea is caused by food contaminated with bacteria or parasites, people often refer to this as food poisoning. (Locked) More »

Esophageal Rings And Webs

Esophageal rings and webs are folds that block your esophagus either partially or completely. Rings are bands of normal esophageal tissue that form constrictions around the inside of the esophagus. They occur in the lower esophagus. Webs, which arise in the upper esophagus, are thin layers of cells that grow across the inside of the esophagus. Either condition may make it difficult to swallow solid food. Experts aren't sure what causes esophageal rings and webs. The condition may be congenital (inherited) or may develop after birth. People with esophageal rings and webs commonly have reflux symptoms. When esophageal webs occur together with iron deficiency anemia the condition is known as Plummer-Vinson syndrome. (Locked) More »

Hernia Repair

A hernia repair is the surgical procedure to fix a hernia. This procedure is also known as herniorrhaphy. A hernia occurs when part of an internal organ or body part protrudes into an area where it should not. The most common hernias occur in the abdominal area. A small portion of the intestine, or a piece of fat, pokes through a weak area in the muscular wall of the abdomen. This causes an abnormal bulge under the skin of the abdomen, usually near the groin or navel. (Locked) More »

Peptic Ulcer

A peptic ulcer is a sore or hole that forms in the lining of the stomach or intestine. The word "peptic" refers to the digestive tract. An ulcer in the lining of the stomach is a gastric ulcer. An ulcer in the first part of the small intestine is a duodenal ulcer. The lining of the stomach is a layer of special cells and mucous. Mucous prevents the stomach and duodenum from being damaged by acid and digestive enzymes. If there is a break in the lining (such as an ulcer), the tissue under the lining can be damaged by the enzymes and corrosive acid. If the ulcer is small, there may be few symptoms. The wound can heal on its own. If the ulcer is deep, it can cause serious pain or bleeding. Rarely, acids in the digestive juices may eat completely through the stomach or duodenum wall. Peptic ulcers are very common. They become more common as people age. (Locked) More »

Esophagitis

The esophagus is the muscular tube that carries food through the chest, from the mouth to the stomach. Normally you don't feel it except when you are swallowing. However, if the inside lining of your esophagus becomes inflamed, you may experience pain or problems with swallowing. This inflammation of the esophagus is called esophagitis. (Locked) More »

Achalasia

Achalasia is an uncommon disorder of the esophagus. The disorder makes it difficult for food to pass from the esophagus into the stomach. The esophagus is a muscular tube. It carries food from the mouth to the stomach. Normally, coordinated contractions of smooth muscle move food through the esophagus. These contractions are called peristaltic waves. Between the esophagus and stomach is a muscle called the esophageal sphincter (LES). The sphincter surrounds the esophagus. It keeps the esophagus closed. This prevents food and acid from splashing back up into the esophagus from the stomach. When you swallow, this sphincter relaxes. It opens to allow food to pass into the stomach. At the same time, nerves coordinate the contractions of the esophagus. This moves food into the stomach when the sphincter opens. In achalasia, the nerve cells in the lower two-thirds of the esophagus and the sphincter are abnormal. This causes uncoordinated or weak peristaltic waves. It also causes the sphincter to remain closed. The cause of achalasia is unknown. It does not run in families. Most people with achalasia develop symptoms between the ages of 25 and 60. (Locked) More »