The digestive system comprises the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the liver, the pancreas, and the gallbladder. As a meal moves through the GI tract, food and beverages mix with digestive juices and bile. They are then broken down by enzymes and reduced to molecules of nutrients. These nutrients, including proteins, vitamins, and minerals, are absorbed by the bloodstream and carried to the body’s cells by the circulatory system.
Because the GI tract is close to 30 feet long, it is not uncommon to have digestive issues develop. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “about 60 to 70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases, like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).” Some common digestive diseases include:
Many of these digestive diseases also impact infants and children.
Many factors affect your gut health, including your family and genetic history, how you manage stress, and what you eat. It is impossible to control your genetic history, but managing stress and eating healthy is attainable. A healthy gut also benefits from eating slower and limiting how much you eat in the evening.
What you eat can help or hurt your digestive system. Fiber is essential to prevent constipation. Most Americans do not eat a lot of fiber, so it is crucial to increase your fiber intake gradually. Too much fiber too soon can lead to gas and bloating. You should eat 20 to 30 grams of fiber a day to prevent constipation.
Fiber can be found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. Some fiber-rich foods are difficult to digest and may be limited by your doctor depending on your digestive health.
The gut is a complex world full of bacteria and other microbes that are important for digestion. Studies suggest that these microbes may play roles in:
Type 2 diabetes
Irritable bowel syndrome
Your immune system
Probiotics are live microbes that are similar to those found in the human GI tract. They are thought to improve gut health and are available in probiotic dietary supplements, fermented foods and yogurt, to name just a few.
Before deciding to incorporate probiotics into your diet, be sure to speak with your doctor or other health care provider.
Regular, moderate physical activity can stimulate the GI tract by increasing blood flow to the digestive system muscles. This helps improve gastric emptying, decreasing the likelihood of constipation and gas.
Exercise also benefits the digestive system by reducing the body’s overall stress and anxiety. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “even one session of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity reduces anxiety, and even short bouts of physical activity are beneficial.”
The CDC recommends adults ages 18-64 get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity such as brisk walking and participate in activities that strengthen muscles at least two days per week.
For adults aged 65 and above, the CDC recommends the same activities as stated above with one addition: include exercises to improve balance, such as standing on one foot.
Your digestive system plays a vital role in your overall health. Supporting healthy digestion involves eating smaller, well-balanced meals, avoiding overeating, and managing stress. Add fiber to your diet, exercise regularly, and talk to your doctor about probiotics.