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Improving Your Digestive Health: What Works (And What Doesn’t)

April 11, 2016
Couple eating breakfast

Since the dawn of time, people have learned about foods by trial and error: eating this makes me feel good; eating that makes me feel bad. Different foods also affect different people…well, differently. Your friend may swear her new diet supplement makes her feel superhuman, but it leaves you in the bathroom with severe cramps.  

During a recent event hosted by Baystate’s Senior Class program, members heard from Dr. Kelly Tyler, chief of Colorectal Surgery, Baystate Health, and her colleagues from Baystate Colorectal Surgery, about some of the ways people try to maintain their digestive health, and offered insight as to what really works.  

Colon Cleansing

There are a lot of products on the market that claim to aid in cleansing your colon, including:

  • Enemas
  • Herbal teas
  • Magnesium-based products
  • Enzymes  

There’s also a procedure, called a high colonic. During this procedure, you lie on a table, and a “colon hygienist” pumps many liters of fluid into your rectum through a small tube. The therapist may massage your abdomen to help you flush the waste, which can take about an hour.  

Tyler says colon cleansing dates back to ancient Greece. “It became popular in the early 20th century,” says Tyler, “and then fell out of favor, although it is experiencing a bit of a comeback now.”  

She explains, “The theory is that toxins build up in the mucous lining of the colon from undigested foods, which can enter the blood stream and ‘poison’ your system.”  

However, Tyler says there are no scientific studies to show that this works. “We have natural bacteria in our colons that detoxify waste. The liver also helps to detoxify your body. In addition, the mucous lining of the colon can block unwanted substances.”  

She adds that if you practice colon cleansing hoping for weight loss, you’ll be out of luck. “Increasing your number of bowel movements does not lead to weight loss since most of the calories are absorbed before they get to the colon.”  


Probiotics are live bacteria and yeast that are good for your digestive system. Sources include supplements as well as:

  • Fermented dairy products
  • Yogurt
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi (a Korean dish with fermented vegetables)  

Tyler says that research is ongoing regarding the benefits of probiotics, but there is currently no definitive evidence that they are beneficial, or which form is best.  

Because these are bacteria, if you do decide to give them a try, Tyler suggests consulting with your doctor first, especially if you have a condition that affects your immune system.  

Herbs & Plant Products

A number of natural supplements have been touted to affect the immune system and stop cancer in its tracks, or reduce your risk of developing it, including:

  • Aloe vera
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Ashwagandha
  • Celandine
  • Garlic
  • Ginger root
  • Green tea
  • Turmeric  

According to Tyler, there is no clinical evidence to back up the cancer fighting properties of any of these.  

Tried & True

If you really want to keep your digestive system as healthy as possible, here are some tried and true steps Tyler says you can take:

  • Eat a healthy diet rich in fiber, including fruits and vegetables
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Limit consumption of red meat and high-fat foods
  • Exercise regularly
  • Stay hydrated; drink plenty of water
  • Get a colonoscopy when you reach age 50 (sooner if you have a family history of colon cancer) and repeat as often as your doctor recommends  

There are vitamins that are important to your digestive health, which can be found in foods or supplements. These include:

  • Vitamin A (sweet potatoes, carrots, dark leafy greens)
  • Vitamin B (fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans)
  • Calcium (milk, spinach, almonds)
  • Vitamin D (sunlight and dairy products)
  • Iron (dark leafy greens, oysters)
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (fish, flaxseed, walnuts)
  • Zinc (oysters, fortified cereals, seeds, watermelon)  

A Final Caution

If you have concerns about your digestive health, or if you are thinking of trying supplements or any other methods to try and improve your health, Tyler recommends talking with your primary care provider first.  

“Because everyone is different, it’s important to have someone familiar with your medical history provide guidance about how individual practices might affect you,” she says. “While none of these products or practices are inherently dangerous, how they interact with your other medications or medical conditions can vary. Your primary care provider should always know what you are taking, even things like over-the-counter or ‘natural’ supplements.”