Proper digestive function begins with good general health. The digestive tract and accessory organs depend, for example, on a robust immune system to fight infectious diseases. They rely on the heart and lungs to provide a vigorous blood supply. Any disease that compromises other body systems—such as high blood pressure or diabetes—puts the digestive system in jeopardy.  

Of course, even the most conscientious person may develop a digestive system disorder without warning. Many diseases are triggered by some genetic trip wire set before birth. For example, about 20 percent of Crohn's disease cases are thought to have a familial origin.

But you can improve your odds of staying well or ease your symptoms if you do fall ill by following general recommendations for a healthy lifestyle: eat a high-fiber and low-fat diet, stay active, don't smoke, abstain from alcohol or moderate your intake, and know your individual risk factors for digestive disease.

Preventing Digestive Disorders

Wouldn't it be great if a new blend of yogurt or a potent new antioxidant juice could shield us against digestive system malfeasance? Unfortunately, such cure-alls really are pure fantasy.

But the reality is encouraging: The lifestyle choices that foster a healthy heart, bones, and gluteus maximus are the same ones that shore up your digestive system. You don't need to do anything special to coddle your colon. Here is the advice from health experts:

Stop Smoking

Everyone knows that smoking causes heart disease, high blood pressure, and lung cancer, but what does it have to do with the digestive system? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of the top 10 cancers among men, three affect the digestive system or its accessory organs: colon and rectal cancer (54 percent of all cancers found in men are colorectal), cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx (15 percent), and cancer of the pancreas (13 percent). All three have been linked to tobacco use. Two of these are also among the top 10 cancers that strike women: colon and rectal cancer (41 percent or cancers found in women are colorectal) and cancer of the pancreas (10 percent).

Smoking harms your digestive system in other ways, too. It can:

  • Increase the risk of Crohn's disease and ulcers
  • Blunt immune system response
  • Lengthen the time it take the body to heal from an ulcer
  • Impair functioning of the liver and pancreas
  • Contribute to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), aka acid reflux, by weakening the sphincter muscle that keeps stomach acid from entering the esophagus

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Obesity, particularly if you carry your extra weight in the abdominal area, is associated with a higher risk of digestive system cancers, especially esophageal cancer and colorectal cancer. It also increases your risk of GERD, gallstones, liver disease, and other problems. Obesity is associated with type 2 diabetes mellitus, which damages the nerves that regulate digestive function. This nerve destruction can lead to gastroparesis (delayed emptying of stomach contents into the small intestine), constipation or diarrhea, and trouble swallowing.

Stay Physically Active

Studies show that physical activity reduces the risk of developing duodenal ulcers in men and gastrointestinal (GI) cancers for both men and women, and reduces the risk of bleeding disorders of the digestive tract in older adults. Start small if necessary. Walk your dog around the neighborhood a few days a week. Swim in the community pool, rake leaves, or hop on an exercise bike while you're watching TV; just do things you enjoy that keep you moving.

Follow a Low-fat, High-fiber Diet

Why is a low-fat, high-fiber diet, a so-called heart healthy diet, good for the digestive system? Let's start with fiber. Fiber is the coarse, indigestible material in plants—for instance, apple peels, potato skins, bean husks, citrus pulp, and celery strings. Fiber bulks up the stool and reduces the likelihood you'll become constipated or have hemorrhoids from straining during bowel movements. Fiber is also thought to help usher food quickly through the GI tract (another name for the digestive tract). This reduces the amount of time potential toxins remain in contact with the intestinal lining thus reducing the risk of digestive tract and other cancers.

A low-fat diet promotes weight management, helps prevent GERD, and eases symptoms in people with gallbladder disease, hiatal hernia, chronic pancreatitis, and inflammatory bowel disease.