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

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 »

Healthy gut, healthy heart?

 Image: © KarpenkovDenis/Getty Images If you ask most medical experts about the hottest trends in health research, chances are they'll mention the microbiome. The term refers to the trillions of microbes living inside our bodies, known as the human microbiota. The vast majority of these bacteria, viruses, and fungi dwell deep within our intestines. These microbes help with digestion, make certain nutrients, and release substances that have wide-ranging health effects. "There's a complex interplay between the microbes in our intestines and most of the systems in our bodies, including the vascular, nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. All of these relationships are highly relevant to cardiovascular health," says Dr. JoAnn Manson, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital. More »

How can I treat stubborn hiccups?

Hiccups that don’t respond to simple home remedies may respond to prescription medications, and may possibly respond to marijuana, acupuncture, or hypnosis. (Locked) More »

What is a leaky gut?

In recent years, scientists have discovered that the inner lining of the intestine can become leaky, and allow toxins from microbes (and, sometimes, the microbes themselves) to get into the bloodstream. This can cause inflammation. (Locked) More »

What causes hiccups?

 Image: © didecs/Getty Images Q. Why do I get hiccups, and what can I do about them? I know they're not serious, but they sure are aggravating. A. Hiccups are one of those minor maladies of man that they don't teach you about in medical school. But they can affect a person's life — particularly when they start at the wrong time. The first time I realized this was when hiccups started just as I was in the middle of giving a lecture to medical students. You want your lectures to be memorable, and this one may have been — not for what I said, but for the way it came out of my mouth. (Locked) More »

Gut reaction: A limited role for digestive enzyme supplements

Prescription enzyme products can help when natural production is low because of a health condition such as chronic pancreatitis or cystic fibrosis. Likewise, taking an over-the-counter lactase supplement (such as Lactaid or Lactrase) can help manage lactose intolerance, and taking an alpha-galactosidase supplement (such as Beano or Bean Relief) may reduce gas and bloating for people who have a hard time digesting the sugars in beans. But for other common gut problems, like heartburn or irritable bowel syndrome, there is little evidence that nonprescription digestive enzymes are helpful. (Locked) More »

Should I be worried about a pancreatic cyst?

Q. I had a recent CT scan of my abdomen and was told I have a small pancreatic cyst. Should I be concerned? A. Cysts of the pancreas — the digestive organ that lies behind the stomach — are typically discovered by accident during a CT scan performed for other reasons. Although most pancreatic cysts are benign (noncancerous), some show features that are worrisome and require further evaluation. Most cysts do not cause symptoms, but very large ones may block ducts in the pancreas and cause pain. There are several different types of pancreatic cysts. A pseudocyst is not a true cyst and is caused by inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis). It is never cancerous, but it can become enlarged and cause pain. The most common actual cysts — serous cysts and mucinous cysts — are defined by the fluid inside them. Serous cysts have clear thin fluid while mucinous cysts have thicker fluid. Most serous cysts are benign and don't require treatment or close follow-up. However, mucinous cysts are considered potentially precancerous and need further evaluation. (Locked) More »