Not only does the nutritional makeup of the food you eat matter for your health, but also how well your body digests that food. What’s more, digestive problems are more common than you might think.
Approximately 60 to 70 million people — or about one in five — in the United States suffers from some form of digestive-health problem, according to the National Institutes of Health (1). In addition, Mintel reports that slightly more than half of U.S. adults have taken over-the-counter remedies for symptoms of indigestion (2).
When working properly, your digestive system breaks down the food that serves as building blocks needed for survival, optimal functioning, and health maintenance. Conversely, when not functioning properly, your digestive system can cause unwelcome symptoms such as gas, bloating, constipation, and poor overall health.
Fundamentals of the Digestive System
The digestive system consists mainly of the gastrointestinal tract, also known as the GI tract or gut, which is a system of hollow organs joined together in a long winding tube. These hollow organs include the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, colon, and rectum. Solid organs including the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder are also part of the digestive system.
After entering the digestive process in the mouth, food travels through the GI tract and is mixed with digestive juices, enzymes, and other compounds that help ensure food is broken down. Then the nutrients are absorbed and sent out into the bloodstream. What’s left over after this process is excreted from the body as waste.
Another important part of the digestive system is our gut microbiome, which is a diverse community of microorganisms that also plays a role in digestion of foods and maintaining health (3). Each of us has our own unique bacterial composition that’s affected by various factors including our environment, diet, physical activity, weight, and even stress. When our gut microbiome is in balance, it contributes to overall good health; conversely, if an imbalance occurs, it can lead to poor health outcomes (4-5).
How to Support Your Digestive System
So, how can one best support their digestive system to maintain good health? For starters, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, getting regular physical exercise, and keeping stress levels controlled all contribute to healthy digestive system functioning. Supplemental nutrition factors can also contribute to a well-functioning digestive system.
As enzymes play a critical role in the body’s ability to break down the nutrients in the foods we eat, supplementation with them is sometimes necessary. Certain factors like age and conditions associated with poor digestion make enzyme supplementation even more important to aid in the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins and to increase the availability of nutrients (6-7). Additionally, age and other factors may lead to insufficient production of the enzymes needed to digest plant sugars and fibers from fruits and vegetables (8). Plant-based proteins can also be difficult to digest.
Indirectly, these factors can lead a person to avoid lower-calorie fruits and vegetables and rely more heavily on higher-calorie meat products or processed foods. Supplementation with digestive enzymes may help those who have trouble with digesting fruits and vegetables and improve nutrient availability from these plant foods, supporting overall health and weight management.
Supporting microbial diversity in the gut can also support better digestive health. Diet is a major influence on the makeup and diversity of the gut microbiome (9). A diet containing more plant-based foods affects the gut microbiota differently than a diet that contains a larger amount of animal-based foods (10). Regardless of diet type, probiotic supplementation can be beneficial for improving microbial balance and lending diversity to the gut microbiome.
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- Everhart JE, editor. The burden of digestive diseases in the United States. US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2008; NIH Publication No. 09-6443.
- Mintel Group Ltd. Digestive Health. US, July 2018.
- Buford TW. (Dis)Trust your gut: the gut microbiome in age-related inflammation, health, and disease. Microbiome. 2017 Jul; 5: 80.
- Stephens Rw, Arhire L, and Covasa M. Gut microbiota: from microorganisms to metabolic organ influencing obesity. Obesity. 2018 May; 26(5): 801-809.
- Le Chatelier E, Nielsen T, Qin J, et al. Richness of human gut microbiome correlates with metabolic markers. Nature. 2013 Aug 29; 500: 541-6.
- Roxas M. The role of enzyme supplementation in digestive disorders. Alt Med Rev. 2008; 13(4): 307-314.
- Ianiro G, Pecere S, Giorgio V, et al. Digestive enzyme supplementation in gastrointestinal diseases. Curr Drug Metab. 2016 Feb; 17(2): 187-193.
- Anderson JW and Chen WJ. Plant fiber. Carbohydrate and lipid metabolism. Am J Clin Nutr. 1979 Feb; 32(2): 346-63.
- David LA, Maurice CF, Carmody RN, et al. Diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome. Nature. 2014 Jan 23; 505(7484): 559-563.
- Glick-Bauer M and Yeh M. The health advantage of a vegan diet: exploring the gut microbiota connection. Nutrients. 2014 Oct 31; 6: 4822-4838.