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5 Things to Know About Digestive Health

By Marisa Cohen
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by William Blahd, MD

Your digestive tract, which starts at your mouth and goes all the way through to your stomach, small intestine, colon, rectum, and anus at the other end, has a big job to do. And when there's a problem with the system, the signs are easy to recognize -- diarrhea, bloating, constipation, and belly pain. Here are 5 top tips from digestive doctors, called gastroenterologists, to help you keep your gut in good working order.

Here's a simple test to tell if you're lactose intolerant.

If you get gas or stomach pains when you drink a glass of milk or eat an ice cream cone, it might be because your body doesn't make enough of the enzyme it needs to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk. That could mean you're lactose intolerant. But it's also possible that your digestive tract can't handle the fat in the milk, says Sheila Crowe, MD, vice president of the American Gastroenterological Association.

She says a simple test can tell the difference: "Drink a glass of skim milk, which has lactose but no fat. If that causes problems, you're lactose intolerant. Then eat a piece of brie cheese, which is high in fat but low in lactose. Can't stomach that? Then you have an intolerance to the fat."

If your body has trouble digesting milk, you don't have to give up all dairy, Crowe says. "Many cheeses and products like yogurt are lower in lactose; try eating small bites to see what you can tolerate."

Ditch healthy eating habits right before a colonoscopy.

The recommended colon-cancer screening at age 50 is a milestone many people dread. But Crowe says there are ways you can make it a little less traumatic. "I tell my patients, for the 3 to 5 days before the procedure, don't eat anything that seems healthy -- like granola, nuts, fruit, and vegetables," she says. "You don't want anything with roughage or fiber in your colon."

Instead, enjoy a 1950s-style diet of mashed potatoes, meat, pancakes, and ice cream. Those will clear your body easily so you won't need as much of the laxatives you take to prep for the test. You also won't have bits of fiber hanging around in your colon, which could make the procedure take longer. Once it's over, though, it's back to healthy eating for a healthy colon.

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