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

Acute pancreatitis overview

The pancreas is the large gland located in the upper part of the abdomen, behind the stomach. It produces digestive enzymes and hormones. Acute pancreatitis is a sudden inflammation of this gland. During acute pancreatitis, enzymes that are normally released into the digestive tract begin to damage the pancreas itself. The gland becomes swollen and inflamed. As a result, digestion slows down and becomes painful. Other body functions can be affected. The pancreas can become permanently damaged and scarred if attacks are severe, prolonged, or frequent. Several things are known to trigger acute pancreatitis: More »

Chronic pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis refers to severe or recurring inflammation of the pancreas. This large gland is located in the upper part of the abdomen, behind the stomach. It produces digestive enzymes and hormones such as insulin and glucagon, which are responsible for controlling blood sugar. This long-term inflammation causes permanent damage to the pancreas, leading to digestive problems and nutritional deficiencies. Causes of chronic pancreatitis include: More »

Crohn's disease

Crohn's disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that affects the digestive tract, usually the small and large intestines. This causes an array of digestive and other symptoms. Once the condition begins, it lasts a lifetime. The inflammation most often injures the final section of the small intestine, called the ileum, and the beginning of the large intestine. However, the disease can affect any part of the digestive tract, from the mouth to the anus. It can also affect other parts of the body, such as the eyes and joints. Exactly what triggers the inflammation that starts Crohn's disease is still something of a medical mystery. A viral or bacterial infection may start the process by activating the immune system. Normally, the immune response fades away when the infection is over. In some people, though, the immune system stays active and creates inflammation in the intestines even after the infection goes away. More »

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity

Many people who have celiac-like symptoms repeatedly test negative for celiac disease yet respond well to a gluten-free diet. Specialists now recognize that these people—between 1% and 3% of the population—may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Symptoms of gluten sensitivity include: Gluten sensitivity is a baffling condition because it has been difficult to understand how gluten could trigger such a host of seemingly unrelated symptoms. One theory is that gluten sensitivity is part of the "undersea" portion of the "celiac iceberg." More »

Gastritis

Gastritis is an inflammation of the stomach's lining. It can be caused by smoking, drinking too much alcohol, long-term use of aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen or naproxen, infection with the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, severe injury, or shock. Sometimes gastritis is an autoimmune condition, in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the cells that line the stomach. Symptoms of gastritis can include: Serious gastritis can lead to erosion of the stomach lining, which can cause painful ulcers and black stools (a sign of bleeding in the stomach). It can also cause anemia, or too few red blood cells in circulation. This can lead to fatigue and being short of breath with physical activity. More »

Gallstones: Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

The gallbladder is a pear-shaped pouch that sits just below the liver. It collects bile, a fluid made to help with digestion, as it flows from the liver to the intestine through the bile ducts. Gallstones are hardened bits of bile that form inside the gallbladder. Bile makes it easier for you to digest fat. It also contains some waste products, including cholesterol and bilirubin, a substance created when old red blood cells are destroyed. Gallstones form when cholesterol or bilirubin particles cluster together into a solid lump. The stone grows in size as the bile fluid washes over it, much like a pearl forms inside an oyster. More »

Appendicitis: Symptoms, diagnosis and treatments

Appendicitis is an inflammation of the appendix. This small, fingerlike tube sits near the lower right side of the large intestine. 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. Symptoms of appendicitis include: Many things can cause abdominal pain. To make a diagnosis, your doctor will ask you about your current and past health. He or she will be especially interested in any digestive symptoms and your most recent bowel movements: their timing, frequency, character (watery or hard), and whether the stool was streaked with blood or mucus. More »

Are you stuck on heartburn medications?

Many people with acid reflux heartburn end up taking medications for life, but it may not be necessary in all cases. The most effective treatments for acid reflux are drugs in the class called proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs), including omeprazole (Prilosec) and lansoprazole (Prevacid). It is possible to stop taking PPIs, but it must be done gradually. Suddenly stopping often triggers a return of heartburn symptoms. Once off of medications, it is also important to address the underlying causes of heartburn, such as being overweight and eating close to bedtime. (Locked) More »