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Digestion

 –  The function of the digestive tract is to break down food and maximize the absorption of nutrients. When food is ingested, it is mixed with digestive liquid and moves to the small intestine incrementally. The small intestine efficiently absorbs nutrients into the bloodstream. When the food passes to the large intestine or colon, the nutrients have been removed and water is absorbed from the waste material. The colon uses muscle contractions or peristalsis to move the waste to the end of the digestive tract or the rectum for a bowel movement. Normal bowel habits vary from person to person but these can occur three times a day to three times a week. Normal digestive function depends on eating healthy meals that include adequate fiber, at least 6-8 glasses of liquid a day along with a regular exercise program.
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Many factors can change digestive function and bowel habits including changes to the diet, exercise, habits, lifestyle or medications. Symptoms may include indigestion, bloating and gas. There are a variety of supplements which claim to alleviate digestive discomfort by restoring normal digestive function including, probiotics, fiber and herbal supplements.

The normal digestive tract contains hundreds of types of healthy or probiotic bacteria (micro flora) that protect the body from harmful bacteria. Historically, people have used fermented foods as a source of healthy bacteria. The largest group of healthy bacteria is lactic acid bacteria or Lactobacillus acidophilus, which is also found in yogurt. These good bacteria counteract the effects of bad bacteria or viruses that can be present in the digestive tract. The balance of these tiny microbes can be upset by medications, such as antibiotics, which kill good bacteria along with those that produce illness.

It has been suggested that taking probiotics can replace the lost beneficial bacteria and relieve symptoms of diarrhea, gas or cramping. However, consumers need to know that probiotics differ in their bacterial composition and the quantity of bacterial strains. Research has not determined that either multiple strains/species or higher concentrations of bacteria can alleviate digestive symptoms. It is important to work with your physician to identify if the specific probiotic preparation you have selected would be targeted to your specific disorder.

Since probiotics are considered dietary supplements, they are not regulated as drugs and there may be interactions with other prescription medications, side effects and safety issues. More research is needed on the efficacy, side effects and safety of these supplements. The following populations are especially vulnerable: young children, pregnant patients, breastfeeding mothers, the elderly and immunocompromized. Probiotic supplements come in a variety of formats, making them easy to ingest. Whether you prefer a capsule, powder or chewable alternative, at drugstore.com we carry a wide range of options, ensuring that there will be a probiotic supplement to match your needs.

Fiber is another essential element in a healthy digestive process. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, the goal for adults should be 30-35 grams of fiber per day. This should include fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads and pasta. Both soluble and insoluble fiber plays a role in optimizing digestion and helping to minimize constipation. Insoluble fiber cannot be broken down by the body. It helps to keep food moving through the gut. Soluble fiber can be digested, but it slows the movement of food through the digestive tract, allowing all the available nutrients, carbohydrates and sugars to be absorbed. Increasing your soluble fiber intake can help to regulate blood sugar levels because the digestive process absorbs sugar into the body more slowly. Natural methods to increase your fiber and prevent constipation include adding bran, prunes, sauerkraut or green sprouts to your diet.

Fiber supplements often contain psyllium, methylcellulose or polycarbophil. If you decide to start these products, is important to increase your fluid intake with a goal of eight full glasses of fluid every day to avoid constipation. These products are available as chewable gummies, powders, capsules and fiber supplements.

Some supplements claim to support digestive health including peppermint, ginger root, papaya enzyme and blessed thistle. Small studies demonstrate some effectiveness of peppermint oil for reducing the symptoms for heartburn, acid reflex and irritable bowel. However, it has also been shown to be a cause of heartburn and it may not be safe for pregnant individuals. Ginger root may enhance the natural contractions of the bowel but more studies are needed. Papaya enzyme may also improve digestion. However, it should not be taken by pregnant individuals or those trying to become pregnant due to the risk of miscarriage. Blessed thistle may improve appetite and treat diarrhea but should not be used for pregnant individuals or those trying to become pregnant. At drugstore.com we carry a range of supplements based on these natural digestive aids.

If you suffer from persistent digestive problems, it is important to talk with your doctor about the appropriate regimen of care to reduce your risk of side effects or safety issues.

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