Good (healthy) digestion is a 'silent' process - digestion in some form is taking place while we rest, eat, sleep or work. We generally only become aware of digestion when something goes wrong (eg, if you eat foods that don't agree with your body or drink too much alcohol or say, if you become constipated or have gas).

Although the digestive system can withstand a lot of stress (from the foods you eat to emotional stresses), it can only do so for a limited period. Over time, the negative effects will accumulate and create health problems in the long-term. So irrespective of your lifestyle in the past, you can take some positive steps today to rejuvenate and maintain the health of your digestive system.

Maintaining a healthy digestive system - key points

  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Eat moderately, slowly and regularly
  • Exercise regularly
  • Reduce/manage stress levels
  • Quit smoking

1. Eat a healthy diet

Eat foods rich in fibre (vegetables, fruit and wholegrains/cereals). Fibre encourages passage of material through the digestive system and gives the correct consistency and bulk to stools. Ideally you should consume at least 30 g of fibre per day. A balanced diet that is rich in fibre may reduce the risk of developing diverticular disease, heart disease, or colorectal cancer.

Reduce the intake of processed foods - these generally have little nutrition or fibre and often contain large amounts of saturated fats, salt and preservatives that can be harmful to the body.

Be discerning about your fat intake - eat moderate amounts of 'good' fats (omega-3 and omega-6) and reduce your intake of saturated fats (eg, animal fat). A diet high in fat can make the digestive system sluggish and may cause or aggravate diseases of the digestive system (and also heart disease)

Drink less alcohol - alcohol can inflame the lining of your stomach or oesophagus or cause symptoms of heartburn. Excessive intake of alcohol can lead to cirrhosis of the liver.

Drink plenty of fluids - especially water. Water helps to dissolve some nutrients, encourages passage of waste through the digestive system and helps soften stools.

Take medications as directed. Some medicines (and herbs) can have harmful effects on the digestive system. Make sure that your doctor is aware of all substances you are taking and use medications only as directed.

2. Eat moderately, slowly and regularly

Don't overeat - eat moderate portionsto avoid putting too much stress on the digestive system

Try not to eat in a rush

The process of digestion starts in your mouth. Take time and eat slowly, chewing each mouthful well. Relaxing while you eat helps the nerves of the digestive system, and food that is well chewed is easier to digest than larger pieces.

Eat regularly and try not to skip meals - this will prevent overeating due to hunger and prepares the digestive system for regular meals.

3. Exercise regularly

Regular cardiovascular exercise helps to strengthen the muscles of the abdomen and reduces sluggishness by stimulating the intestinal muscles to push digestive contents through your system.

4. Reduce/manage stress levels

You may have noticed a feeling of unease in the abdomen during times of stress. Stress effects the nerves of the digestive system and can upset the intricate balance of digestion. In some people stress slows the process of digestion, causing bloating, pain and constipation while others may need to frequently empty their bowels and the stools may be more loose and watery. Stress can worsen some conditions such as peptic ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome.

5. Quit smoking

Smoking lowers the pressure at the junction between the stomach and oesophagus, promoting backflow of stomach acid into the oesophagus (reflux) - which can result in heartburn and other complications. Smoking also aggravates peptic ulcers and inflammatory conditions of the bowel, and is linked with an increased risk of many cancers.