The digestive system consists of organs functioning together to convert your food into usable energy. This system contains organs starting from the mouth, to the stomach, to the intestines, ending with the rectum and anus. It plays an important role in your body’s general well-being. Studies have shown that a majority of human diseases are a result of the inability of the digestive system to function well . This article contains a summary of the benefits of a healthy digestive system as opposed to the detrimental effects of an unhealthy one.
First of all, let's look at what defines a healthy digestive system. A healthy digestive system is a collection of digestive organs and the gastrointestinal (GI) tract functioning at optimum to convert food into energy. The GI tract consists of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines. The digestive organs on the other hand consist of the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas.
These organs break down consumed food and convert them into basic nutrients to be absorbed into the blood by the small intestine. As blood flows around the body, it carries these nutrients with it to supply to cells for energy. On the other hand, the large intestine is responsible for removing undigested food from the system.
Figure 1. Gastrointestinal tract and digestive system
A healthy digestive system confers multiple health benefits, which extends beyond simply the health of your gut and gastrointestinal system. These benefits include:
1. Stronger immune system
Your immune system is associated with your digestive system in a way. There are ‘good’ bacteria in the digestive system and studies have shown that the cells in the intestine secret antibodies in relation to these good bacteria and the microorganisms' environment . This helps to regulate and develop your immune system against foreign pathogens. A healthy digestive system also acts as a first-line of defense against incoming pathogens that enters via the GI tract.
2. Managing healthy weight
A healthy digestive system may help you to manage and maintain a healthy body weight. Your body burns calories during metabolism to convert food into energy. In other words, your digestive system uses part of the energy gained from food during digestion and reduces the amount of energy stored in the body. The presence of a healthy gut flora and microbiota has also been associated with weight loss and reduced intestinal inflammation .
3. Removing toxins
Body detoxification is another benefit of a healthy digestive system. Not everything you eat is beneficial to your body, which is one of the reasons why the body expels it. During digestion, the liver functions in processing these toxins . It separates toxins from nutrients and converts them to other forms for removal. Some examples of toxins that are broken down by the liver are ammonia, excess proteins and even medications.
4. Regulating bowel movement
The hallmark of a healthy digestive system is having regular bowel movements. A healthy digestive system with a healthy level of gut microbiota has been associated with a more regular bowel movement and less chances of constipation . Conversely, a healthy gut microbiota and bacterial environment is also important in preventing an individual from experiencing diarrhea .
Similarly, when your digestive system is in poor health, there may be recurring problems as such:
1. Acid Reflux
Acid reflux or gastro-esophageal reflux occurs when the stomach acid moves up into the esophagus, which leads to burning of the throat. Common symptoms of acid reflux include burning sensation in the chest, lump sensation in the throat, and chest pain . Frequent occurrence of acid reflux may lead to Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). Poor digestive health
Another detrimental effect of an unhealthy digestive system is formation of gallstones. They are formed when bile secretion is hardened and deposited in the gall bladder. It is also caused by high cholesterol intake and incomplete emptying of the gallbladder, which may occur when your digestive system is not in optimal health to aid in complete digestion of food materials.
Constipation occurs when bowel movements are not as frequent as they ought to be. It is caused by dehydration and imbalances in the intestinal acidity. This condition is accompanied by hard and painful bowel movements. It may also lead to hemorrhoids from overexertion during defecation. When you have an unhealthy digestive system, you are more likely to be prone to digestive issues such as constipation, which can lead to other complications such as hemorrhoids (see below).
On the other hand, people with an unhealthy digestive system may also experience frequent diarrhea. Diarrhea occurs when bowel movements are too frequent, and/or when your stools are too loose and watery. This condition may be caused by bacterial infections or intolerance to certain foods. The management of diarrhea depends on the etiology of it: speak to your healthcare professional who will be able to access your condition and prescribe the appropriate treatment modality for the cause of your diarrhea.
5. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
IBS is another detrimental effect of an unhealthy digestive system. It is a gastrointestinal disorder accompanied by pain in the abdomen, constipation and/or diarrhea, and excessive bloating. Guidelines have also recommended the use of dietary fiber to manage global symptoms of IBS, such as abdominal pain and constipation / diarrhea [8, 9].
Hemorrhoids, or also commonly known as piles, form when blood vessels inside the rectum become swollen due to the pooling of excess blood in the rectum. It is commonly associated with constipation and prolonged sitting on the toilet. All these causes blood flow to be affected, leading to pooling in the rectum. Some symptoms include rectal bleeding during defecation. Intake of dietary fiber is also recommended for people who are experiencing hemorrhoids, to reduce bleeding and inflammation .