Millions of Americans suffer from digestive problems. Research leads us to put the number at around 20 percent of the population, between 60 and 70 million. Those digestive problems are more common than we’d like to think and have many causes. If you’re one of these people, increasing your understanding and working towards a comprehensive diagnosis of your digestive issues allows you to pursue appropriate treatments that will lessen your problems and improve your quality of life.
In this article, you’ll learn about different digestive problems, how to identify the causes of your symptoms, explore solutions like digestive health supplements and when to seek help.
Signs of Digestive Problems, Disorders and Diseases
People experience digestive problems in many ways. However, sometimes they go unnoticed because there are no apparent symptoms until the pain is quite severe.
When there are symptoms, they can vary significantly among individuals depending on the condition and other factors. Symptoms can be mild or severe and may include bleeding, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, incontinence, nausea and vomiting. Digestive problems are commonly expressed as abdominal pain in the belly, swallowing difficulties and weight gain or loss. Sometimes, bowel movements are less frequent than usual (for example, fewer than three bowel movements in a week).
These symptoms can be signs of serious diseases. When they occur together or when blood is mixed in with your stool, it can indicate more significant issues, and you should seek medical attention. Digestive problems can also result from common digestive disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), Crohn’s disease, celiac disease or chronic constipation, or they may indicate more severe conditions such as cancer.
To determine if your symptoms indicate a severe disease, visit your physician or trusted dietitian and do a digestive health assessment. This will provide you with personalized information about your symptoms and rule out more serious issues like cancer.
Common Digestive Disorders
There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this article, you’re dealing with more than a little bit of digestive discomfort, and your issues have been going on for a while. Suppose they’re not severe enough to have put you in a doctor’s office or emergency room, but they persist. In that case, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with some form of common digestive disorder. Take a look at the following and see if any of them seem familiar.
Irritable bowel syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder in which the large intestine is irritated or inflamed. The large intestine is where stool is stored after being passed through the small intestine. IBS symptoms include cramps, pain, bloating and constipation or diarrhea. Sometimes, mucus is present in stool, blood can be seen mixed with stool or solid stools are urgent or difficult to pass. IBS symptoms are not limited to the digestive tract and can also include headaches, anxiety and back pain.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a disorder in which stomach contents go back into the esophagus. This food pipe connects the throat to the stomach. When this happens, it causes heartburn and indigestion. In addition, sometimes, acid from the stomach irritates the esophagus, which can cause other symptoms, including chest pain and chronic cough.
This disease is a disorder of the digestive system that causes inflammation in the lining of the intestines. Crohn’s may affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract, from mouth to anus. Still, it most commonly affects the end of the small bowel (the ileum) and the beginning of the large intestine (the colon). The walls of an affected intestine can become red and swollen, leading to ulcers. Crohn’s disease symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, rectal bleeding and weight loss.
Celiac disease is a digestive disorder in which the small intestine’s lining becomes inflamed when it comes in contact with gluten, a protein found in several grains including wheat, barley and rye. Symptoms include diarrhea, bloating, gas, unexplained weight loss and fatigue. In addition, people with celiac disease are at risk of developing other autoimmune disorders because the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body and gluten.
Gallstones are hard lumps made of cholesterol, bilirubin and other salts that form in the gallbladder. Symptoms of a gallstone attack may develop suddenly or slowly over several hours or days. Pain may start in the upper-middle abdomen and travel to the back. Nausea and vomiting may follow. Attacks can last for several hours and happen one to four times a month, though there may be long periods without symptoms. Gallstones are caused by substances in bile (a fluid produced by the liver) crystallizing and becoming solid over time.
Ulcerative colitis is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that affects the innermost lining of the large intestine and/or rectum. Symptoms include bloody diarrhea, cramping, fever and weight loss. Ulcerative colitis can be very debilitating. Symptoms include frequent bathroom visits to pass blood or mucus from the bowels, making life miserable.
Chronic constipation is typically defined as having fewer than three bowel movements in a week or experiencing complex bowel movements accompanied by dry stools. Often this occurs because the colon absorbs too much water from the stool. Chronic constipation can cause complications such as hemorrhoids or rectal prolapse if it remains unresolved for a long time.
Diagnosis of digestive problems may require a specialist. It is important to tell your doctor about all of your symptoms to get the best diagnosis, even if they aren’t bothering you right now. Be sure to describe any changes in bowel habits or diet that have occurred recently. Your physician will perform an exam, ask about any risk factors you may have (such as a family history of certain diseases) and order tests.
Standard procedures for diagnosing digestive problems include:
- Blood tests
- Stool samples
- Endoscopy, a test that uses a thin, flexible tube with a light and lens that can be inserted into the digestive tract
- Barium swallow, a diagnostic exam that uses X-rays and a contrast dye to look inside the digestive tract
- Colonoscopy, a test that uses a thin, flexible tube with a light and lens that can be inserted into the large intestine
Strategies for Relief
Serious digestive diseases will involve working closely with your doctor and may need surgery and medications to remedy. However, for common digestive disorders, there are some things you can do to help the symptoms of mild digestive problems:
- Eat a high-fiber diet with whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruit daily. You may also want to try fiber supplements.
- Exercise regularly as this has been shown to improve constipation.
- Drink plenty of water and fruit juices. More fluids can help you avoid dehydration, which might be a cause of constipation for some people.
- Don’t ignore warning signs such as rectal bleeding or bloody diarrhea. These could indicate an illness that requires prompt medical attention.
- Relax, reduce stress and get plenty of rest. Stress can cause or worsen intestinal spasms in some people.
- Use natural digestive enzymes. These are available over the counter at your local drug store, in health food stores and online. In addition, some are specifically formulated to help with various issues such as gluten digestive enzymes.
- Take probiotics. These are typically formulated to help with indigestion, gas and bloating.
- Eat smaller meals several times each day instead of two or three large ones. This can also prevent heartburn when you do eat your more extensive meal.
- Consider specialized diets.
- An anti-inflammatory diet (for ulcerative colitis) is a restrictive diet that eliminates many foods and requires consultation with a nutritionist.
- A specific carbohydrate diet (for Crohn’s disease) is a restrictive diet that eliminates most starches and sugars and requires consultation with a nutritionist.
- The low-FODMAP diet (for irritable bowel syndrome) is a restrictive diet that eliminates many foods and requires consultation with a nutritionist.
Consider seeing a psychologist to discuss the stress in your life or attend counseling sessions to help you learn strategies for relaxation.
It’s a Journey, Stick with It!
Chances are you’ve been living with your digestive problems for a long time. Unfortunately, seeking a proper diagnosis and getting relief won’t happen overnight. However, you can take an active role in your treatment and work with your doctor to find the right combination of therapies that will bring you relief.