Digestive Problems

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From bloating to gas to indigestion, digestive problems are pervasive health issues for many people. This section covers general information about disorders related to the digestive system – which includes the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and large intestine, gallbladder, pancreas and liver.

Read on to learn more about the digestive system and what lifestyle factors and conditions can cause digestive problems. Symptoms of digestive disorders, such as nausea, diarrhea and heartburn, can be both irritating and embarrassing. Learning about the most common symptoms of digestive problems can help you take steps to prevent and manage these complications.

Proper digestion, absorption of nutrients and elimination of waste products are aided by a good exercise program and healthy diet. You can find specific tips on how to keep your digestive tract healthy and prevent digestive problems. Also included is an outline of some of the most popular diagnostic exams used to identify digestive disorders. Once a specific problem is diagnosed, you and your doctor can come up with a treatment plan that’s right for you.

About Digestive Problems

Digestion is the complex process of turning the food you eat into the energy and nutrients you need for growth, repair and maintenance of body tissues. The digestion process also creates waste that has to be eliminated. Digestive problems occur when your body has problems breaking down and using the food that you eat.

The digestive tract is a long twisting tube that starts at the mouth and ends at the anus. It is made up of a series of muscles in the wall that coordinate the movement of food and other cells in the lining that produce enzymes and hormones to aid in the breakdown of food. There are also 3 other organs (the liver, gall bladder and pancreas) that produce or store digestive chemicals.

Like any complex system, your digestive tract is affected by its internal and external environment and can get out of balance. When it does, the results can include both irritating and uncomfortable symptoms such as diarrhea, heartburn and gas.

Digestive problems can be caused by anything from lactose intolerance to just simply eating the wrong kinds of foods. Such problems can also be the result of bacteria in food, infection, stress, certain medications, or chronic medical conditions such as colitis, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). 

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The digestive system is an intricate system that can be disrupted by disease, diet and emotional stress. Symptoms of digestive problems are often uncomfortable, and sometimes embarrassing. There are a number of basic symptoms that indicate a digestive problem.

  • Nausea and Vomiting: Depending on the exact cause of the digestive problem, nausea and vomiting can vary from an unsettled feeling in the stomach to the violent action of immediate vomiting.
  • Diarrhea: Diarrhea is the increased frequency of bowel movements, which are also loose or watery.  It is very common and usually not serious. Some people have diarrhea often as part of irritable bowel syndrome or other chronic diseases of the large intestine.
  • Constipation: Constipation arises when stools are hard to pass. Constipation may occur with cramping and pain in the rectum caused by the strain of trying to pass hard, dry stools. Some bloating and nausea may accompany constipation.
  • Bloating: When bloated, the abdomen feels uncomfortably full and tight and may be visibly swollen. Bloating can result from a number of reasons, including excessive gas in the digestive system or a lack of sufficient digestive enzymes and bile acids to rapidly break down food.
  • Abdominal pain: Depending on the cause, abdominal pain appears in different patterns and with varying intensities.  With indigestion for example, you may feel pain or uncomfortable heat in the area between the bottom of your breastbone and your navel.
  • Heartburn: Heartburn is a painful, burning feeling in the chest that may radiate into your neck or back during or after eating.

Occasional or mild symptoms of digestive problems are usually nothing to worry about. Mayo Clinic recommends, if your discomfort persists for more than two weeks, or you experience any of the below symptoms, contact your doctor right away.

  • Unintentional weight loss and/or loss of appetite
  • Repeated vomiting or vomiting with blood
  • Black, tarry stools
  • Fatigue or weakness, which may be symptoms of anemia
  • Trouble swallowing that gets progressively worse 
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Your doctor can often diagnose digestive problems by asking questions about your personal history and by conducting a physical examination. Sometimes a psychological examination is also helpful as certain digestive problems are linked heavily to anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders.

Various tests may be used, depending on the findings of the physical examination and history. Some examples are endoscopy or colonoscopy, which are both useful for visualising the inside of your digestive system. These tests involve passing a camera on the end of a fibre-optic cable through your mouth to examine your oesophagus, stomach or small intestine (endoscopy) or via your anus into your rectum or large intestine (colonoscopy). Another method is laparoscopy, which uses a thin, lighted tube put through a cut in the belly to look at the abdominal organs.

Imaging tests such as x-rays, ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans may also be used to search for signs of specific digestive disorders or obstructions within the digestive system. Samples of your stools may be examined for signs of infection or the presence of blood cells or fat.

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There are a number of tips that can help keep your digestive tract healthy:

  • Have at least 7 servings of fruit and vegetables a day: Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables can help keep your digestive tract in good shape. Further plant-based foods are rich in fiber and many disease fighting chemicals.
  • Choose whole grains more often: Whole-grain carbohydrates are generally rich in fiber and help move food through the digestive tract quickly to prevent constipation. To choose these good grains, look for the labeling of "whole grains" on the food package and in the ingredient list, making sure that whole grains are among the first items listed.
  • Limit the consumption of certain types of meat: Choose poultry or fish more frequently than red meat, and limit processed meats. Most people do not need more than six to eight ounces of meat daily.
  • Update your cooking methods: To prevent carcinogen development, try steaming, poaching, stewing, microwaving, braising, and boiling instead of frying and grilling.
  • Maintain adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D:
  • Exercise regularly: 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity on most days of the week is generally recommended, however, you should check with your doctor before starting an exercise routine. Aerobic exercise and deep breathing exercises are very beneficial for healthy digestion, because they stimulate the natural contraction of intestinal muscles, helping to move food through your intestines more rhythmically.
  • Manage your stress levels:  Digestion requires a large amount of blood flow to your stomach and intestines. Stress can cause a shift in blood flow away from the gut, as muscles tense and heart rate accelerates, demanding more oxygen delivery to the active muscles. Engaging in regular relaxation techniques, such as meditation, can help reduce stress levels and ease digestion.
  • Don't rush eating: Digestion begins in the mouth. It is important to take your time and chew food until it is near liquid consistency. Chewing generates saliva with enzymes that begin the breakdown of food and also signals the organs such as the stomach and pancreas to secrete their digestive juices. Also, air swallowed during hurried eating can produce belching or bloating.
  • Avoid tobacco: According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse , smoking can harm all parts of the digestive system, contributing to such common disorders as heartburn and peptic ulcers.
  • Do not overeat: The body produces only a certain volume of digestive juices. Large meals are poorly digested, stress the system and can make you feel bloated. Try eating 6 small meals a day rather than 3 large ones. With a regular schedule, your digestive organs have time to rest between meals.
  • Avoid foods that cause gas: Foods such as beans, broccoli, cabbage, and bran can cause gas and make you feel uncomfortable. The amount of gas that different foods cause varies from person to person.
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