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

Soothing solutions for irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is most common in people in their 30s and 40s; however, it can occur at any age. The exact cause of IBS has yet to be discovered and it is impossible to prevent. The goal is to focus on managing the condition, which can be done by identifying specific triggers for IBS symptoms and then adopting strategies to make your symptoms less severe and less frequent. The most common treatment approaches are diet, stress management, and medication. (Locked) More »

Avoid complications by treating chronic constipation early

 Image: © krisanapong detraphiphat/Getty Images Like gray hair and wrinkles, constipation is something you're more likely to experience as you age. "Constipation is a very common complaint; mild irregularity is probably even more prevalent," says Dr. Judy Nee, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School. "Women are more likely than men to be constipated." More than one in three adults ages 60 and older have experienced constipation symptoms, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Constipation is typically defined as having fewer than three bowel movements a week; having stool that is hard, dry, and difficult to pass; or feeling that you aren't able to void completely when you use the bathroom. (Locked) More »

Putting a stop to leaky gut

Leaky gut occurs when holes in the gut lining allow toxins and bacteria to enter the body, and may contribute to symptoms like bloating, gas, cramps, food sensitivities, fatigue, and headaches. While leaky gut remains a mysterious ailment and is often tough to diagnose, investing in overall digestive health, including eating a diet with unprocessed foods and adequate fiber intake, and adopting regular exercise can help keep the digestive system healthy. More »

What’s causing that belly bloat?

 Image: © Thunderstock/Getty Images You just finished a meal, but the meal isn't quite finished with you. It's causing an uncomfortable bloated feeling and the perception that you suddenly have a big belly that lasts for hours. And it's not just your imagination. "Very quickly it can make you look like you have a bit of a pooch. There's an enlargement of the abdomen and a sensation of distention," explains Dr. Kyle Staller, a gastroenterologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. But the cause of belly bloat is often hard to pin down. (Locked) More »

Heartburn vs. heart attack

During your regular after-dinner walk around the neighborhood, you feel a painful sensation in the center of your chest. Could it be your heartburn flaring up again, or something more serious? Heartburn is a common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), often called acid reflux. Acid from the stomach bubbles up into the esophagus, causing a painful burning just behind the breastbone. Not surprisingly, it's often mistaken for a heart attack. In fact, of the over eight million emergency room visits for chest pain each year, severe heartburn accounts for over half the cases in which actual heart problems are ruled out. Chest pain caused by insufficient blood flow to the heart (angina) or a heart attack is often described as a feeling of tightness, constriction, or pressure, rather than a burning sensation (see "Heartburn or heart attack?"). But it's not always easy to tell the difference. "Chest discomfort brought on by exercise is more likely to be a heart-related problem," says Dr. Michelle O'Donoghue, cardiovascular specialist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. But you can also have angina that's not related to physical activity, she notes. If you have any symptoms you're not sure about, see a doctor. And call 911 if you feel chest tightness, have trouble breathing, break into a sweat, turn pale, or become very weak. More »

3 surprising risks of poor posture

America, we have a posture problem. Whether it's the result of sitting at a desk all day, looking down at a smartphone, or lounging on a couch, poor posture is dogging people of all ages. And health experts are worried. "It's a common and important health problem among Americans, and it can lead to neck pain, back problems, and other aggravating conditions," says Meghan Markowski, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. While back and neck conditions top the list of potential posture woes, there are many others — such as poor balance, headaches, and breathing difficulties. "Researchers are also looking into whether posture affects mood, sleep, fatigue, and jaw alignment," Markowski says. Three other problems linked to poor posture may surprise you. More »

Cracking the cough code

 Image: © Wavebreakmedia/Getty Images Dry cough, wet cough, a cough that lingers on — they're all signs of one or more underlying conditions. What does each type of cough indicate, and how do doctors discern the difference? It depends on the type and duration of the cough. A wet, productive cough produces sputum (phlegm or mucus from the lungs or sinuses). The cough sounds soupy and may come with a wheezing or rattling sound and tightness in your chest. (Locked) More »

The best ways to manage heartburn

Over-the-counter antacids often can help control occasional heartburn, but for recurring episodes, people may benefit from stronger medication like H2 blockers and proton-pump inhibitors. More »