Your Digestive System

A Powerful Source of Health

Let's Talk Digestion
While digestion doesn't make for the best conversation at your average party, it may be the right conversation to have with your physician. Today, some of the most common digestive issues physicians hear include complaints about constipation, diarrhea, and gas — issues that affect us all. But sometimes these "everyday" issues are cause for concern — they may be indicative of disease or a poorly functioning digestive system that can lead to serious health problems. Talking with your physician about these symptoms can not only lead to treatments, but also can help screen for diseases, such as colon cancer, and prevent other illnesses that can have a serious impact on your overall health.

Signs of Digestive System Health and Distress
In general, it's important to understand the signs of a well-working digestive system, and the signs of a digestive system in distress. When a digestive system is in working order, you'll experience regularity. Regularity is defined as having a bowel movement (that's not too soft or too hard) three times a day to three times a week. (Contrary to popular belief, everyone has a different frequency of bowel movements.)1 Irregularity (such as constipation or diarrhea) can be caused by a poor diet, including not drinking enough water and not eating enough fiber, or a number of other issues. When your digestive system is functioning properly, you won't have excessive diarrhea or constipation, and you won't have excessive gas either. While it's normal to have gas — most people produce about 1 to 4 pints a day, and pass it 14 times a day2 — gas well in excess of this can be cause for concern.

Why Is Digestive System Health So Important?
Another cause of digestive problems is when there is an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the colon. The microflora in the digestive system is made up of a delicate balance between potentially helpful (good) and potentially harmful (bad) bacteria.

Poor diet, disease, or taking certain medications, such as antibiotics, all can disturb this delicate balance, leading to an overgrowth of bad bacteria. The result may be intolerable digestive symptoms or infections that can make you very sick.

Poor overall digestive system health is also associated with illnesses in other parts of the body, including immune system issues. (Surprisingly, your digestive system contains 70% of your body's immune system — that's just one clue to the importance it has in your overall health!)

How to Keep Your Digestive System Healthy and Happy
One way to maintain a healthy balance of bacteria, and a healthy gastrointestinal tract, is by taking prebiotics. Prebiotics help sustain the balance of potentially harmful and helpful bacteria in the microflora of your colon, bacteria that's so plentiful it checks in at about 3 pounds. Prebiotics do this by stimulating the growth of helpful bacteria in your gut. While probiotics are live bacteria that when consumed have a helpful effect on body function, prebiotics are nondigestible food ingredients that selectively promote the growth of these helpful bacteria, such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. One particularly well-researched source of prebiotics is the ingredient FOS (fructooligosaccharides), found naturally in certain foods such as bananas, onions, and garlic.

1National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, (NDDIC), NIH.
2National Institutes of Health, "Gas."