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

Heartburn and your heart

Symptoms of GERD can mimic the pain of a heart attack or angina. Proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) offer welcome relief for people with chronic heartburn, but as with other powerful drugs, it's important to use them wisely. More »

Gain more weight, get more GERD

A study in Norway found that weight gain was directly tied to experiencing new chronic heartburn symptoms. Losing weight is the long-term solution to heartburn, though acid-reducing medication soothes symptoms in the short run. More »

How you can make colonoscopy prep easier

Colonoscopy saves lives, and adequate prep is essential for a successful colonoscopy. New split dosing schedules and low-volume laxatives make preparing for colonoscopy easier to tolerate. (Locked) More »

What is GERD or Gastroesophageal reflux disease

Most people know gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) by its most common symptom: heartburn. GERD occurs when the muscle that connects the esophagus to the stomach fails to do its job. This muscle is called the lower esophageal sphincter. Normally, it opens to allow food to pass into the stomach, then closes to keep food and acidic stomach juices from flowing back into the esophagus. When the sphincter relaxes too much, irritating stomach fluids surge up into the esophagus, sometimes causing inflammation and the painful burning sensation behind the breastbone known as heartburn. More »

Diverticulosis and diverticulitis

Diverticula are pouch-like structures that form in the wall of the large intestine. When the large intestine contains diverticula, the condition is called diverticulosis. It is usually harmless and causes no problems. When these pouches bleed or become inflamed or infected, the condition is called diverticulitis. Diverticulitis can cause a variety of symptoms, from abdominal pain and cramping to fever. More »

Upset stomach? Don't write it off

Dyspepsia is a frequent or persistent upset stomach, with pain in the upper stomach, filling up quickly with meals, or bloating after meals. Various things can contribute to dyspepsia, such as over-the-counter pain medications or infection with a stomach bacterium. In a quarter of cases, no underlying cause is identified. Men with dyspepsia and red flags like weight loss, fatigue, blood in the stool, vomiting, loss of appetite, or pain or difficulty swallowing should see a doctor. Otherwise, it may help to identify and avoid foods that seem to trigger dyspepsia, such as fatty foods, and eating smaller but more frequent meals. (Locked) More »

Peptic ulcer

Peptic ulcers are sores in the lining of the stomach and the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine). They affect more than 4 million people in the United States each year; 1 in 10 individuals develop a peptic ulcer at some time. Peptic ulcer can occur at any age. Duodenal ulcers usually appear between ages 30 and 50 and are more common in men than women. Stomach ulcers tend to occur later in life, after age 60, and affect women more often than men. The cause of most stomach and duodenal ulcers is infection with a type of bacteria called Helicobacter pylori. Other irritants include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen, alcohol, coffee with or without caffeine, and smoking. More »

Celiac disease

Celiac disease is a genetic, autoimmune disease. The immune system mistakenly recognizes gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, as "foreign." When people with celiac disease eat foods containing gluten, the immune system attacks the gluten when it gets into the small intestine. As the immune system wages war against gluten, it damages small, fingerlike projections in the small intestine called villi. Villi that make it easier for the body to absorb nutrients from food. As villi become eroded and flattened, they have trouble absorbing nutrients. The result is diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms, as well as a host of health problems related to malnutrition, including weight loss, anemia, osteoporosis, infertility, nerve problems such as ataxia (loss of coordination), and even certain types of cancer. More »