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

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 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 »

The growing role of probiotics

The “good” bacteria called probiotics can help maintain a healthy gut, ward off illnesses, and maintain a smooth digestion. Fermented foods like yogurt, pickles, sourdough bread, and certain cheeses are the best sources of probiotics, and men should try to add more of them to their daily diet. (Locked) More »

When your colonoscopy reveals that you have diverticulosis, hemorrhoids, or both

Many people have diverticula and hemorrhoids without symptoms. Diverticula are pouchlike structures that sometimes form in the muscular wall of the colon and bulge outward. In some people, diverticula bleed or get infected (diverticulitis). Hemorrhoids are pillow-like clusters of veins in the lining of the lower part of the rectum and anus, which help play a role in preventing stool leakage. When they become enlarged, however, they are anything but helpful and can even contribute to some leakage in addition to pain, itching, and bleeding. More »

Does heartburn feel like a heart attack?

Q. Is it true that chest pain can sometimes be caused by heartburn? A. It surely is true. Heartburn is called that because it causes a burning sensation in the middle of your chest, near where your heart is. Yet heartburn is not a condition of the heart: it is a condition of the stomach and esophagus (the tube that carries food and drink from the throat, through the chest, and into the stomach). Confusing? Let me explain. Where the esophagus enters the stomach, there is a circle of muscle that clamps down to prevent stomach acid from backing up, or refluxing, into the esophagus. It normally relaxes only when you swallow, to let food into your stomach. However, sometimes the muscle fails to tighten enough to prevent acid reflux. When acid hits the inner lining of the esophagus, it injures the lining and causes pain — heartburn. If this happens regularly, the problem is called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. (Locked) More »

Avoiding health risks at the farmers’ market

Going to a farmers’ market is a great way to load up on fresh fruits and vegetables. But one should be wary of buying products that may harbor bacteria that can cause foodborne illness. Those products include unpasteurized ciders or dairy foods, such as cheese or milk; and perishable homemade goods (sauces or meals), meat, and dairy products that are sold out of a cooler, without being properly refrigerated. After buying your food items, get them home within one to two hours. Once home, put food away as soon as possible. (Locked) More »

The finer points of acupuncture

The ancient practice of acupuncture has been used to help heal and manage ailments such as chronic pain, low back pain, and arthritis. The treatment involves inserting hair-thin needles into specific points on the body to help release energy that may be blocked because of illness or other imbalances. While the supporting research is ongoing and mixed, men may benefit from the treatment either by itself or as part of traditional pain therapy. (Locked) More »