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

Celiac Disease (Non-Tropical Sprue)

Celiac disease (also called non-tropical sprue, celiac sprue, gluten intolerance and gluten-sensitive enteropathy) is an intestinal disorder in which the body cannot tolerate gluten. Gluten is a natural protein in many grains, including wheat, barley, rye and oats. People with celiac disease have an immune reaction that is triggered by gluten. The immune reaction causes inflammation at the surface of the small intestine where it damages small structures - villi - on the surface of the intestine. It also damages smaller, hair-sized protrusions called microvilli. Healthy villi and microvilli are needed for normal digestion. When they are damaged, the intestine cannot absorb nutrients properly and you can become malnourished. (Locked) More »

Gastrointestinal Amebiasis

Gastrointestinal amebiasis is an infection of the large intestine caused by microscopic one-celled parasites commonly known as amoebas (Entamoeba histolytica). Because these parasites live in the large intestine, they travel in the feces of infected people, and can contaminate water supplies in places where sanitation is poor. The parasite can contaminate fruits and vegetables grown in areas where human feces are used as fertilizer. They can be transferred on the dirty hands of infected people who don't wash their hands often or correctly. Once amoebas enter the mouth, they travel through the digestive system and settle in the large intestine. Harmless strains of the parasite (Entamoeba dispar) live there without causing damage. E. histolytica can live in the intestine without causing symptoms, but it also can cause severe disease. These amoebas may invade the wall of the intestine, leasing to amoebic dysentery, an illness that causes intestinal ulcers, bleeding, increased mucus production and diarrhea. These amoebas also may pass into the bloodstream and travel to the liver or, infrequently, to the brain, where they form pockets of infection (abscesses). About 10% of the world's population is infected with amoebas, particularly people who live in Mexico, India, Central America, South America, Africa and the tropical areas of Asia. In industrialized countries, amebiasis is most common in recent immigrants and travelers who visit countries where amoebas are prevalent. (Locked) More »

Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance is a common cause of abdominal cramping, bloating and diarrhea. This condition occurs when the body does not have enough of the intestinal enzyme lactase. The job of lactase is to break down lactose, the main sugar in milk. Once lactose is broken down into simpler forms of sugar, these simple sugars can be absorbed into the bloodstream. In normal digestion, lactose is digested in the small intestine without the release of gas bubbles. When lactose can't be digested well, it passes into the colon. Bacteria in the colon break down some of the lactose, producing hydrogen gas. The remaining lactose also draws water into the colon. The extra gas and water result in symptoms, such as cramping, diarrhea, bloating and flatulence (gas). (Locked) More »

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 »

Shigellosis

Shigellosis is an infection of the colon (large intestine) caused by Shigella bacteria. Shigellosis is also called bacillary dysentery because it can cause severe diarrhea. However, the infection often causes only mild symptoms. Shigella can be found in water polluted with infected sewage. Bacteria commonly enter the body through a contaminated drinking supply. Shigella bacteria also can be found on food that has been rinsed with unclean water, grown in fields contaminated with sewage, or touched by flies that have touched feces. Shigella bacteria can reach the mouth on dirty fingers that have touched items soiled with feces, including dirty diapers, toilets and bathroom fixtures. Outbreaks of shigellosis are most common in areas where sanitation is poor, and in places where people live under confined or crowded conditions. Shigella also can be passed from person to person during anal-oral sex. Shigellosis is more common among children ages 1 to 4. Children of this age have a higher rate of infection because they are starting to use the toilet and often forget to wash their hands. Infants are at the highest risk of becoming seriously ill from a Shigella infection.   (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 »