Many people suffer from occasional digestive problems. They may experience some diarrhea with an illness or if they’ve consumed too much fiber, for example. Or they may experience some constipation if they consume too little fiber over the course of a few days.
However, there are some genuine and chronic digestive and gastrointestinal problems that are much more significant. Let’s talk about them a bit so you know the signs and the treatments.
What are Digestive Problems?
GERD - GastroEsophageal Reflux Disease
GERD stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease. This is also known as good old fashioned heartburn. It can be occasional or chronic.
Essentially, there is a little flap that prevents food from escaping the stomach and going back up the esophagus.
Often, that flap can become relaxed or injured, and food can pop back up into the esophagus.
The result is an irritation in the esophagus or GERD. It feels awful and for many, this is a chronic condition.
Antacids work for mild GERD because they reduce the acid and therefore the impact of the irritation on the esophageal tissue.
However, long term, GERD often requires some medical intervention including prescription medications.
IBD - Irritable Bowel Disease
IBD stands for irritable bowel disease. It’s a term that’s used to describe two chronic conditions; colitis and Crohn’s disease. Both are autoimmune diseases that have a strong genetic component. The conditions are different but have similar symptoms.
Let’s look at Crohn’s first.
Crohn’s disease is an ongoing disorder that is linked to inflammation of the digestive tract. It can affect any area of your GI tract, including your mouth, but it’s more commonly found in either the ileum or the colon. The inflammation not only causes pain, but it can also cause other common and challenging problems including:
- Frequent diarrhea
- Abdominal pain/cramping
- Rectal bleeding
- Weight loss
- Reduced appetite
- Joint pain
- Skin Lesions
- Eye inflammation
The symptoms vary depending on the person and the severity of their Crohn’s. It can also depend on where in the digestive tract they’re affected. The symptoms can be extremely unpredictable. Some people experience years of remission and then have flare-ups that hit suddenly.
There are often complications from Crohn’s, including:
- Scar tissue
Crohn’s is treated with prescription medication, lifestyle and dietary changes. Surgery is often required to repair damage caused by Crohn’s.
This condition is a chronic disease that affects the large intestine; mainly the colon. The lining becomes inflamed and ulcers develop on the surface.
This inflammation, like Crohn’s, causes pain and digestive problems. However, unlike Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis is very localized. It doesn’t impact any other area of the digestive tract. Both ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s are largely caused by:
- Immune system
- Environmental factors
The symptoms are the same and the treatments are as well. Complications can include profuse bleeding or bowel rupture.
IBS – Irritable Bowel Syndrome
IBS or irritable bowel syndrome is something that impacts many people, and it often has a psychological component.
For example, stress can cause IBS, but generally isn’t a factor for IBD. It shares the same signs and symptoms of IBD but doesn’t change the tissue of your digestive tract and it doesn’t increase your risk of colorectal cancer.
The signs and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome can vary widely and include:
- Abdominal pain or cramping
- Mucus in the stool
Generally speaking, IBS is a chronic condition and symptoms can vary depending on the person’s lifestyle and diet, as well as other factors.
You might be surprised to learn that around 75 percent of the population suffers from some type of digestive problem.
And according to the American Nutrition Association, 70,000,000 people every day suffer from some form of digestive issues. (Source: http://americannutritionassociation.org/newsletter/digestive-issues).
As you might imagine, digestive problems can have a large impact on your life. Let’s take a look at them in a bit more detail.
What Causes Digestive Problems?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one thing, and only one thing, cause digestive problems? Then it’d be easy to fix the issue because you’d know exactly what it was.
Unfortunately, for most people, there are many different causes for their digestive troubles.
The key is to learn your body and to pay attention to your triggers. So let’s explore those triggers, what they look like, why they cause problems and then we’ll talk about some tips on how to eliminate your digestive issues.
Stress is something that’s probably part of your life. We live busy lives, and it can be stressful. Stress triggers your “fight or flight” response and that can cause a number of digestive changes.
Basically, during the fight or flight response, your body is shifting all of its focus to the systems that will get you out of a dangerous situation. That’s what it was designed for.
However, most of us aren’t in situations where we’re actually in danger.
Your stress response is likely due to your lifestyle rather than the fact that you’re being chased by bears.
You’re not in danger, but your body reacts the same way. It exhibits the same physiological response, which means that your body begins producing glycogen for your muscles, which isn’t used and then is stored as fat.
You also end up also producing more acid in your stomach.
Many people who have very high-stress jobs also find that they have chronic heartburn, chronic diarrhea, and even chronic constipation.
Stress can really wreak havoc with your digestive system. In fact, for some people with IBS stress can be the trigger.
Another thing that we want to talk about digestive problems is food intolerances. There are a few categories of food that cause problems for a large number of people.
You may be familiar with some of these sensitivities and intolerances. One that is quite common is dairy.
You hear about people being lactose intolerant, but some can also be sensitive or allergic to the protein in the diary, the casein or whey, or both.
Food allergies and intolerances cause a variety of symptoms, including the ones that we’ve discussed. Dairy may also cause rashes, insomnia, chronic fatigue, and headaches.
Another common sensitivity is gluten or wheat, and that’s been in the media a lot for the past couple of years.
Cruciferous vegetables, things like broccoli and brussels sprouts, kale and cauliflower can be a little bit difficult for your body to digest. They’re great for you.
They’re packed with nutrients. But if you eat them in large amounts or if you’re a little sensitive to them, they can cause digestive distress.
The most common symptoms are gas and bloating, although sometimes you might experience some diarrhea.
Finally, beans can cause digestive issues. You may already know this. They cause gas and bloating.
However, there’s a very easy way around this. You can use a pressure cooker to break down the protein that your body cannot; the protein that causes gas. You can also buy canned beans.
Sugar is in just about everything we eat, and while the FDA recommends that we get less than 10 teaspoons of sugar a day, the average American gets more than 30 teaspoons of sugar.
It’s in your coffee drinks, your sports drinks, your breakfast cereal, snack bars, and virtually any other processed food.
You already know that sugar causes obesity and diabetes. It can also cause inflammation which is the root cause of many digestive problems including diarrhea and constipation.
When something gets inflamed it gets irritated and swollen, right?
In your digestive tract, this means that it’s not able to effectively absorb nutrients. So the right things don’t pass into and out of your system at the right times.
This can lead to too much or too little water in your system, which of course causes diarrhea or constipation.
And constipation causes additional issues. The bad bacteria in your gut loves it when you’re backed up. It provides the ideal environment to grow these unhealthy bacteria.
With the overgrowth of bad bacteria in your system, some pretty significant health problems can occur.
We’ll talk about how to balance the bacteria in your gut along with some other tips for good digestive health soon. For now, know that sugar can cause digestive problems.
Different medications can impact your digestive health. In fact, simple over the counter pain killers can cause gastrointestinal bleeding and stomach upset.
They do this because they actually prevent the mucosa, the moisture that protects the lining of your intestines, from being produced.
As a result, areas of your digestive tract essentially get dried out because they’re not protected from that natural barrier.
There are a vast number of other medications that cause stomach problems. The bottom line is if you’re on medication, take a look at what the possible side effects are and then pay attention to your body.
If you’re having some digestive problems, it may be caused by the medicine that you’re on. Talk to your doctor about alternatives.
There are a large number of different reasons why you may be struggling with digestive problems. And the truth is that it may not be one thing, but rather a combination of things.
So let’s next take a look at some steps you can take to improve your digestive health starting today.