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Digestive Health Archive


Gut reaction: A limited role for digestive enzyme supplements

Updated January 29, 2020

There's little evidence to support their use for common digestive distress like heartburn.

 Image: © Julia_Kuleshova/Getty Images

Digestive enzyme supplements promise to fix everything from bloating and flatulence to heartburn and gut health. The supplements are so popular that global sales are expected to reach $1.6 billion by 2025, according to recent marketing research. But don't be too quick to reach for them. "Some of them are clearly beneficial, in certain situations. But enzyme supplements also are often used in situations where there is little evidence that they do any good," says Dr. Kyle Staller, a gastroenterologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

What are digestive enzymes?

Naturally occurring digestive enzymes help break down food so we can soak up nutrients. Your mouth, stomach, and small intestine make some digestive enzymes. However, the majority come from your pancreas, which floods the small intestine (when food arrives there) with enzymes such as

Should I be worried about a pancreatic cyst?

Updated October 13, 2020

On call

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.

The growing role of probiotics

Updated February 1, 2018

You need these "good" bacteria from fermented foods to help maintain a healthy gut.

 Image: © marekuliasz/Thinkstock

In spite of what you may think, bacteria can be good for your health.

For instance, your gut is home to trillions of bacteria — both good and bad. Besides helping with digestion, good bacteria help the gut boost your immune system to help fight infections and out-of-control inflammation.

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

Updated November 14, 2019

In most cases, you won't know they're there. But if things change, home remedies often help.

 Image: © ttsz, JFalcetti/Thinkstock

You received good news after your last colonoscopy: no cancer or precancerous polyps. But with the good news came with a surprise finding: though you don't have symptoms, you do have diverticulosis and hemorrhoids. The news may be puzzling, but don't worry. "Both conditions are common and usually don't cause any problems," says Dr. Kyle Staller, a gastroenterologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.


Diverticulosis is the term used to describe the presence of diverticula — pouch-like structures that sometimes form in the muscular wall of the colon and bulge outward. "Between 40% and 60% of people have them, and they get more common as we age. They tend to cluster in the sigmoid colon, just above the rectum," Dr. Staller says.

Hemorrhoid help: preventing and treating flare-ups

Updated December 4, 2020

The best way to keep hemorrhoid flare-ups at bay is to prevent constipation. Make sure your diet always includes enough fiber to promote healthy bowel movements, and be mindful about staying well hydrated. If you need help with your water intake, keep a water bottle by your side at all times as a reminder to drink. Jazz up your water with a slice of lemon, lime, or orange.

Also, regular exercise supports good bowel function, so if you do not exercise on a regular basis, this is a good time to begin. Don't try to immediately reach the goal of at least 150 minutes per week of exercise. Begin with short periods of walking. Over time, you can increase your speed and duration of activity. Get your doctor's okay if you have any reservations about exercising or you plan to begin a vigorous routine.

Does heartburn feel like a heart attack?

Updated October 13, 2020

Ask the doctor

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.

Avoiding health risks at the farmers’ market

Updated September 1, 2017

Watch out for unpasteurized products, and ask vendors about food safety.

There's something magical about strolling through a farmers' market on a crisp autumn morning. The fruit and vegetables seem fresher there than they do in a store — apples taste tarter, tomatoes seem redder and riper. It's a farm-to-table connection that puts you in touch with nature and the harvest.

Maybe that's partly behind the explosion of farmers' markets across the country, climbing from about 2,000 markets in 1994 to more than 8,600 today, according to the Farmers Market Coalition. "It's a great way to get fresh produce and try different foods you may not have come across before. But it should be enjoyed with caution," urges Dr. Simi Padival, an infectious disease specialist with Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Daily aspirin users 75 or older: Consider taking a stomach-protecting drug

Updated September 1, 2017

Research we're watching

Roughly half of Americans ages 75 or older take a daily, low-dose aspirin to prevent a heart attack or stroke. New research suggests these people might benefit from taking a stomach-protecting drug to prevent a higher-than-expected risk of gastro­intestinal (GI) bleeding.

The study, published online June 13, 2017, by The Lancet, involved nearly 3,200 people who were prescribed aspirin because of a previous heart attack or stroke. Researchers followed them for up to 10 years to see how many were hospitalized for bleeding — a well-known side effect of aspirin use. Upper GI bleeding usually results from a stomach ulcer, which can cause anemia, heartburn, and abdominal pain.

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