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)
- celiac disease
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.
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