A Definition of Digestive Health
Digestive health is the optimal functioning of the body’s digestive tract, which helps to keep the body in good health overall. The body uses food and other substances such as supplements for energy and to keep it healthy, but the foods we choose to consume for fuel can have a big impact on our digestive health, as well. The digestive system consists of the organs involved in the process of consuming food, extracting nutrients from food, and converting these raw materials into energy.
The digestive tract, often called the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, includes the mouth, salivary glands, esophagus, stomach, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, small intestine, colon, rectum, and anus. The digestive system’s organs are joined in a long, irregular, hollow tube running from the mouth down to the anus. Once food enters the mouth, it passes through the hollow organs of the digestive tract, then to the anus.
The pancreas and the liver, two of the solid organs of the digestive tract, are responsible for producing and adding digestive juices. The function of these juices is to help break food down into nutrients which can then be absorbed by the body. Another solid organ, the gallbladder, stores bile until mealtimes. Then, at mealtimes, it empties the bile into the small intestine. The majority of nutrients from digested foods are absorbed through the small intestine’s walls, then travel to other parts of the body through the bloodstream. Nutrients are then used to build and provide energy and nourish the body’s cells. Waste products exit the body through urination or bowel movements.
Symptoms of Poor Digestive Health
There are many possible symptoms of poor digestive health. Some of the most common signs are:
- Constipation — Having less than three bowel movements in one week or the need to strain when you are able to eliminate. You may feel bloated in between movements.
- Vomiting — Usually recurring, it may come with the feeling of being full after a meal. Bloating and nausea may also occur.
- Diarrhea — You may have explosive or chronic diarrhea, “unusually light-colored stools,” flatulence, bloating, and nausea.
- Weight loss — Weight loss that is unintentional, especially with a normal, healthy diet, may indicate poor digestive health. You may experience diarrhea, and in some cases, skin irregularities and confusion.
Some of the most common digestive conditions that may cause these and other symptoms include: anal fissures, Diverticulitis, hemorrhoids, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s Disease, Celiac Disease, gallstones, and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). Most of these conditions can be managed with diet modifications, proper nutrition, and in some cases, surgical intervention (such as the removal of the gallbladder).
Maintaining Digestive Health
There are many things you can do to improve your digestive health, most of them simple lifestyle changes that can be easily adopted. A few simple modifications to your daily routine can make a big difference in digestive health, such as:
- Drink plenty of water. You want your digestive system to keep moving, but when you don’t drink enough water, it slows down.
- Keep moving. Among other health benefits, physical movement will speed up your digestion.
- Limit your fat intake. Fatty foods are hard for the body to digest, and they slow the digestive system down.
- Eat more fiber. Fiber keeps everything moving smoothly through your intestines and can reduce unpleasant symptoms associated with IBS and other conditions.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Just losing a few pounds will ease some of the pressure in the abdominal area and may help to reduce heartburn. Even a small weight gain is sometimes linked to GERD.
- Slow down while you eat. Give your body time to digest the nutrients, and give your brain and body time to let you know when you’ve eaten enough.
- Avoid foods that make you bloated. Try to limit your intake of sodium, artificial sweeteners, and starches.
- Take probiotics. Probiotics are live microorganisms, usually bacteria (good bacteria naturally found in the gut) which can normalize bowel movements. Probiotics can be found in some foods, or you can take probiotic supplements.
Probiotics to Improve Digestive Health
Probiotics are live bacteria and microorganisms that are good for your digestive system and your overall health. Probiotics are found naturally in your body and can also be found in some foods and natural supplements. Probiotics are the helpful or good bacteria that balance out the bad bacteria in the gut to maintain health. When you lose the good bacteria naturally found in your body, such as when you’re taking antibiotics, probiotics can help to replace them and restore balance in the gut, which keeps your body working as it should.
Probiotics help food move through your gut. Some of the known conditions that may be improved with probiotics include:
- Infectious and antibiotic-related diarrhea
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Some research has shown that probiotics provide health benefits in other areas of your body, such as:
- Oral health
- Preventing colds and allergies
- Vaginal and urinary health
- Skin conditions such as eczema
Research is still being conducted to find out even more ways probiotics help out with digestive health and other health problems, but it’s clear that there are numerous benefits to maintaining a healthy balance in the gut. The digestive system may seem like an afterthought, but healthy digestion can significantly influence other body systems and enhance immunity and overall well-being.