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, oesophagus, 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, reaching a healthy weight, eating a nutritious diet, getting regular physical exercise, and managing stress all contribute to healthy digestive system functioning. Supplemental nutrition factors can also contribute to a well-functioning digestive system.

Probiotics are one way to support digestive wellness. Probiotics are living bacteria and other microbes that provide benefits for health when consumed in sufficient amounts. Beneficial microbes have long been part of a healthy diet in traditionally fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha (6, 7). Well-designed probiotic supplements can offer even more benefits by providing carefully studied probiotic strains with distinct health benefits. Supplements also provide greater potency, with more live, active probiotics than typical fermented foods can provide.

Prebiotics are the fuel that helps probiotic microbes grow and flourish. Prebiotics include certain types of fibre and other compounds from plants that cannot be broken down by our digestive systems. These plant-based compounds travel to the large intestine, where they strongly promote the growth of beneficial bacteria (8). Prebiotics are an often under-appreciated way to support digestive wellness, and can have profound effects on the gut microbiome. Adding prebiotics to your diet from more plant-based foods and prebiotic supplements can quickly increase the diversity and number of beneficial microbes that make up your gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome can metabolise prebiotics in to substances that directly benefit the health of our digestive system. For example, a diet rich in prebiotic fiber allows intestinal microbes to produce butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids that contribute to the healthy function of the cells lining the large intestine (8).

Poor digestion and unpleasant digestive symptoms are an unfortunately common experience for many, but lifestyle and nutritional approaches can have a big impact on digestive wellness. Supporting microbial diversity in the gut helps to support better digestive health and diet is a major influence on the makeup and diversity of the gut microbiome (9).  Both probiotics and prebiotics are additional factors that help to support a diverse gut microbiome and contribute to digestive wellbeing and overall health.



  1. 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.
  2. Mintel Group Ltd. Digestive Health. US, July 2018.
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  6. Marco ML, Heeney D, Binda S, et al. Health benefits of fermented foods: microbiota and beyond. Curr Opin Biotechnol. 2017;44:94-102. doi:10.1016/j.copbio.2016.11.010
  7. Butel MJ. Probiotics, gut microbiota and health. Med Mal Infect. 2014;44(1):1-8. doi:10.1016/j.medmal.2013.10.002
  8. Holscher HD. Dietary fiber and prebiotics and the gastrointestinal microbiota. Gut Microbes. 2017;8(2):172-184. doi:10.1080/19490976.2017.1290756
  9. 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.