Particularly during the past decade, many countries have seen an increase in digestive issues and digestive system diseases. While common, though, bowel problems and poor digestion are quite complex.
The complexity of the digestive system makes diagnosing related issues challenging for both the professional and patient. Experiencing digestive issues can be uncomfortable and the symptoms can range from slight upsets to severe pain.
Read on to discover more about common digestive issues and potential treatment options and strategies.
What Are the Most Common GI Issues & Diseases?
The digestive tract or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, more commonly known as the "gut", includes the esophagus, liver, stomach, small intestine, large intestine (colon), gallbladder, and pancreas.
With several different components, accurately diagnosing a digestive disorder involves many steps. At the very least, an in-depth medical history should be taken and a physical examination conducted.
Some patients may need more extensive or invasive procedures, lab work (i.e. blood draws or urine samples), genetic testing, or imaging as well. This depends on the severity of symptoms and other signs the doctor might detect during an exam or deem important from the medical history of the patient.
A good rule of thumb is to be cautious and aware, rather than scared, when it comes to GI issues. Being mindful of potential signs and symptoms can empower a patient in the process of getting a digestive disease diagnosed.
Common GI Symptoms:
• Abdominal or gas pains
• A change in bowel habits
• Gas and bloating
• Nausea and vomiting
• Unexplained weight loss
Common Digestive Disorders:
• Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or simply acid reflux
• Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
• Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
• Lactose intolerance
• Hiatal hernia
• Ulcerative colitis
What Causes Gastrointestinal Distress?
While diet and lifestyle are not the only cause of GI disorders, they play a significant role in developing and treating digestive diseases.
Common causes of GI or digestive distress include, but are not limited to, the following:
• A diet low in fiber
• Not getting sufficient exercise
• Changes in routine
• Consuming large amounts of dairy
• Poor bowel habits
• Abuse of laxatives/stool softeners (which weaken bowel muscles over time)
• Certain medications or changes in medication dosage/treatment regimen
• Lifestyle factors (diet, exercise, smoking habits, antibiotics, etc.)
Food Intolerances & Allergies
Food intolerances are less life-threatening than food allergies. However, intolerances can cause some of the same symptoms and can absolutely affect a person's quality of life.
Food intolerance occurs when the body is unable to properly digest a certain food. Some scholars estimate that up to 20 percent of the world population may have a food intolerance.
Food allergies are linked to the immune system and its response, while food intolerances are primarily linked to digestive problems. Some causes of food intolerance include:
• Absence of necessary enzymes needed for digestion (i.e. lactose intolerance)
• Reaction to naturally occurring chemicals in food
• Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
• Food additives and food coloring sensitivity
• Stress or psychological factors
• Celiac disease
Common symptoms of food intolerance include:
• Stomach pain
• Nausea and/or vomiting
• Anxiety or nervousness
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, there are more than 160 foods known to cause food-related allergies. While intolerances and allergies are different reactions, foods that cause allergies may cause unpleasant digestive experiences as well.
Eight foods accounting for 90 percent of food-allergic reactions in Americans include:
5. Tree nuts (including almonds, walnuts, cashews)
A food intolerance or sensitivity often requires an individualized eating plan. A knowledgeable healthcare team can recommend treatment and resources helpful in managing a food allergy or intolerance.
Stress affects the body in a number of ways, including on digestive processes. Stress can cause increase sensitivity to symptoms, and can even affect the rate at which food moves through the body.
Painful muscle spasms, poor digestion, and even nutrient absorption alterations can be caused by stress. Stress can lead to sickness due to its ability to weaken the intestinal barrier and cause inflammation over time. Such weakening and inflammation allow for bacteria to make itself at home in the gut.
Stress can cause stomach problems on its own. However, common lifestyle and behavior change issues that stem from stress and can also affect digestive health:
• Sleep disturbances
• Change in eating habits
• Increase in drinking or smoking
Functional GI disorders are disorders that have no apparent physical cause but result in digestive discomfort (such as pain and bloating). They have been said to affect 35 to 70 percent of people at some point in their life.
In the body, the brain and the gut are linked. This is most evident in high-stress situations when the body diverts energy it would typically invest in digestion to instead engage in other protective measures.
People may also feel "butterflies" or "sick to their stomach" during times of stress or other heightened emotions. In GI conditions that are exacerbated by stress, the following psychotherapy options may help alleviate persistent digestive distress:
• Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT helps combat unproductive thinking and teach coping skills for stress/anxiety management. This therapy has been useful in helping patients cope with GI distress.
• Relaxation Therapy: Relaxation therapy includes many techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and relaxing and restful music. It has been used in combination with CBT to help manage GI disorders and decrease stress reactivity.
• Gut-Directed Hypnotherapy: Deep relaxation combined with the power of positive suggestion when focused on GI function can be helpful in alleviating symptoms.
Lifestyle, diet, and stress management all play significant roles in digestive health and healing. However, genetics can lead to the development of GI disease and are becoming more involved in treatment.
In fact, biomarkers are an integral part of precision medicine, or medicine that is personalized or individualized to the patient. Precision medicine helps to develop targeted treatment, which is more likely to be preventative of disease.
Understanding genetic risk can help doctors to better assess and diagnose digestive conditions and predict GI disease. The following steps can help incorporate genetics into digestive disease diagnosis and treatment:
• Asking a healthcare provider about genetic testing and personalized treatment options
• Understanding the genetic testing and treatment options covered by an insurance plan
• Being thorough and accurate in listing family history of digestive issues in medical paperwork and assessments
• Being aware of family or personal history of GI issues (can be a risk for developing digestive disorders)
• Exploring precision medicine options for improved treatment opportunities
How to Regulate the GI Tract & Avoid Digestive Issues
The good news is that many diseases of the GI tract can be prevented or minimized altogether. One can improve digestion and gut health naturally by making lifestyle changes related to diet, exercise, and stress management.
Diet is one of the most important factors tied to gut and overall health, though recommendations are nuanced. However, common guidelines include eating less or more of the following:
Eat and drink less of:
• Highly processed foods, especially those laden in sugar, salt, saturated and trans fats
• Animal meats, particularly red and processed ones
• High FODMAP foods, including wheat and dairy products, onions and garlic, and artificial sweeteners
• Alcohol, which may negatively impact bacteria in the gut
Eat and drink more of:
• Prebiotics, indigestible carbohydrates and fibers obtained from plants such as fruits and veggies
• Probiotics, "good" bacteria sourced from fermented foods
• Water, which helps aid in good digestion and promotes bowel regularity
• Fruits and veggies relative to their high fiber content and antioxidant properties
Regular exercise and physical activity help ensure regular bowel movements and lower chronic constipation risk. Research also shows positive impacts on exercise and gut microbiota.
Aim for at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise and two strength-training sessions each week.
As previously mentioned, stress can take a toll on the digestive system. Reduce and manage stress with yoga, dance, music, and other coping techniques.
Get Screened as Needed
Getting screened can be helpful in avoiding colon cancers and other serious issues. A colonoscopy is recommended for average-risk patients at the age of 50.
Those with a family history should receive a colonoscopy at 10 years younger than the age the family member was diagnosed. For example, a person with a sister diagnosed with colon cancer age of 56 should plan being screened at age 46.
Ultimately, a healthcare professional can help schedule the timing of colonoscopies. They will consider if at higher risk due to personal or family history of digestive disease or GI cancers.
All-in-all, being aware of GI health and "gut feelings" now can save headache, stomachache, and even heartache down the line.
Moore A. Food Intolerance versus Food Allergy. 2020. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Accessed at https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/allergy-library/food-intolerance.
Cleveland Clinic. Gastrointestinal Disorders. 2020. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed at https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/7040-gastrointestinal-disorders.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. Digestive Disorders, Overview. 2020. The Johns Hopkins University, The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and John Hopkins Health System. Accessed at https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/digestive-disorders.
Kubala J. The 8 Most Common Food Intolerances (Nutrition -- Evidence Based). Healthline. 2018. Accessed at https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/common-food-intolerances.
O'Morain N, O'Morain C. The burden of digestive disease across Europe: Facts and policies. Digestive and Liver Disease. 2019:51(1);1-3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dld.2018.10.001.