9 Common Digestive Issues: Complete Guide

Every day, millions of people deal with the discomfort and inconvenience of digestive issues. These conditions can range from mild and temporary to severe and debilitating. Understanding these disorders and their symptoms is the first step to managing them and improving your quality of life.

Here are nine of the most common digestive problems, their symptoms, causes, and treatments.

1. Constipation

Constipation is a common disorder characterized by infrequent bowel movements, typically fewer than three per week. Constipation symptoms often include:

  • Less frequent bowel movements
  • Hard or lumpy stools
  • Straining to have bowel movements
  • Feeling that not everything came out after a bowel movement
  • Small-sized stools, despite the difficulty in passing them
  • Changes in the consistency and volume of the stools

Constipation generally occurs due to a diet low in fiber, insufficient water intake, changes in daily routine, and certain medications. Daily life habits and diet play a crucial role in developing constipation. For instance, spicy foods and insufficient fiber intake or a low, liquid diet can lead to hard, dry stools, which are harder to pass.

Treatment

Remedies for constipation include increasing fiber intake through foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains like brown rice and barley. Drinking plenty of water and exercising regularly can also help. If constipation remains persistent, your healthcare provider may recommend the use of laxatives or stool softeners, which help ease bowel movements.

2. Diarrhea

Diarrhea is a common gastrointestinal disorder characterized by frequent and watery stools. It usually lasts for about 1-2 days and goes away without requiring any treatment. Diarrhea can lead to dehydration due to the frequent loss of fluids from the body, making it crucial to drink a lot of fluids during this time.

Diarrhea symptoms primarily consist of:

  • Loose or watery stools, often occurring three or more times within 24 hours
  • Abdominal cramping or bloating
  • An urgent need to use the restroom
  • The feeling of incomplete bowel movements
  • Prolonged diarrhea can result in weight loss due to reduced nutrient absorption

Some common causes of diarrhea include bacterial infection, consumption of contaminated food or water, food intolerance, certain medications like antibiotics, and specific digestive tract diseases like celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease. Food allergies or lactose intolerance can also result in diarrhea. Moreover, the excessive use of artificial sweeteners could also lead to the onset of this condition.

Treatment

Most cases of diarrhea clear up by themselves within a few days. During this time, it’s essential to stay hydrated and avoid foods that your stomach seems sensitive to or that are spicy, greasy, or high in fiber. If diarrhea lasts more than a couple of days or is accompanied by high fever, blood in stools, or severe, uncontrolled vomiting, you should seek immediate medical attention.

3. Acid Reflux

Acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux (GER) is a condition where stomach contents rise back into the throat, leading to symptoms such as heartburn and an acidic or bitter taste in the mouth. Though common, acid reflux can be a serious condition that requires medical attention for effective treatment.

The most common symptoms of acid reflux are:

  • Burning sensation in the chest or heartburn, usually after eating
  • Pain from the stomach, then into the chest and throat
  • Sour taste in the mouth
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Chronic cough
  • Laryngitis
  • The sensation of a lump in the throat

Acid reflux often results from a weak or dysfunctional lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This muscle ring normally keeps the stomach’s contents from moving back up into the esophagus. Nevertheless, eating certain foods, drinking alcoholic or carbonated beverages, tobacco use, or being overweight can weaken the LES, increasing the likelihood of acid reflux.

Treatment

Treatment for acid reflux relies on lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications initially. This includes eating smaller meals, avoiding food triggers, not lying down after eating, and losing weight if needed. When these measures don’t control the heartburn symptoms, more potent medication or even surgery might be required.

4. Hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids, also known as piles, are swollen veins in the lower part of the rectum and anus. When the walls of these veins are stretched due to pressure, they become irritated, leading to symptoms such as:

  • Discomfort around the anus
  • Itching around the anus
  • Swelling around the anus
  • Painful bowel movements
  • Bright red blood on toilet paper after a bowel movement
  • Bright red blood in the toilet bowl after a bowel movement
  • Prolapse of external hemorrhoid, extending beyond the anus

Hemorrhoids often result from excessive pressure and straining during bowel movements, which is common in individuals with chronic constipation. Pregnancy, which puts increased pressure on the lower abdomen, and aging, which leads to weakened tissues in the anal canal, are other factors that may cause hemorrhoids. A diet low in fiber can also contribute to the development of hemorrhoids.

Treatment

Several over-the-counter remedies, such as hemorrhoidal creams and sitz baths, can provide temporary relief from hemorrhoid symptoms. If symptoms persist or worsen, it is essential to seek medical attention, as you may require surgical intervention to remove the hemorrhoids.

5. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

IBS is a common disorder that affects the large intestine and can cause a combination of symptoms, including:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Discomfort
  • Bloating
  • Change in frequency of bowel movements
  • Change in appearance of bowel movements
  • Presence of mucus in the stool
  • Sudden urge to have a bowel movement

Although it can cause significant discomfort, IBS doesn’t lead to serious complications or an increased risk of colorectal cancer. The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but several factors can play a role. These include alterations in the gastrointestinal tract’s movements, abnormalities in the nervous system, an increased sensitivity to pain, and changes in the gut microbiota. Certain food items, hormonal changes, and stress can also trigger or worsen IBS symptoms.

Treatment

Treatment for IBS typically includes diet and lifestyle modifications, such as increasing dietary fiber, drinking plenty of water, and regular exercise. Your healthcare provider may also recommend medications to relieve symptoms, manage pain, or treat constipation and diarrhea associated with IBS.

6. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a term for two conditions—Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis—that cause chronic inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. Chronic inflammation can lead to damage to the digestive tract over time, leading to symptoms like:

  • Recurrent or severe diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloody stools
  • Reduced appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Symptoms outside the digestive tract (skin rashes, arthritis, inflammation in the eye, tiredness and lack of concentration)

The exact cause of IBD isn’t known, but it’s thought to be a result of a defective immune system response, which causes the body to attack healthy cells in the digestive tract. Genetic and environmental factors may also play a role, with certain bacterial or viral infections potentially triggering the disease.

Treatment

While there’s no cure for IBD, treatments can reduce inflammation and provide symptom relief. Depending on the severity of the IBD, treatment options can include anti-inflammatory drugs, immune system suppressors, antibiotics, or surgery in severe cases. Your healthcare provider can help develop a treatment plan that’s right for you.

7. Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder where consuming gluten—a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley—leads to damage in the small intestine. In people with celiac disease, intake of gluten produces an immune reaction that can impair nutrient absorption, leading to malnutrition and a variety of other problems.

Common symptoms of celiac disease include: 

  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Bloating
  • Anemia

Celiac disease is triggered by an unusual immune response to gluten in genetically susceptible individuals. While genes play a critical role in the development of this digestive condition, other environmental factors, such as early infections or microbiota disruption, can play a part in its onset. Other risk factors include type 1 diabetes, Down syndrome, and other autoimmune conditions.

Treatment

The main treatment for celiac disease involves adopting a strict gluten-free diet, which prevents damage to the lining of the intestines. Current research is also exploring medications that can reduce the body’s immune response to gluten consumption. Your healthcare provider or a dietitian can help develop a comprehensive dietary plan to manage celiac disease effectively.

8. Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer, involving either colon or rectal cancer, is the second leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States. The vast majority of these cancers are adenocarcinomas, which typically start as small, benign clumps of cells called polyps. Over time, some of these polyps may become cancerous.

Early-stage colorectal cancer rarely shows symptoms, which can make early detection challenging. As the disease progresses, symptoms may include:

  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Shortness of breath

Most colorectal cancers start from noncancerous polyps in the colon or rectum, which can turn cancerous over the years. Risk factors for colorectal cancer include:

  • Age
  • Certain types of polyps
  • Inflammatory intestinal conditions
  • Inherited syndromes
  • Family history of colorectal cancer
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol intake
  • A diet low in fiber or high in fat

Treatment

The type of treatment used for colorectal cancer largely depends on the cancer’s stage, size, and location. Treatment options can range from:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted drug therapy
  • Combination of these treatments

Additionally, a healthy lifestyle and regular screening can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.

9. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, is a long-term condition where stomach contents rise back into the esophagus, causing frequent heartburn or acid reflux. GERD can interfere with daily life if left untreated, leading to inflammation, bleeding, or problems swallowing.

Common symptoms of GERD mainly include: 

  • Frequent heartburn
  • Regurgitation of food or sour liquid
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Feeling of a lump in your throat

Less Common Symptoms

  • Chest pain
  • Chronic cough 
  • Laryngitis
  • Exacerbation of asthma

GERD is generally caused by frequent acid reflux—the backup of stomach acid or bile into the esophagus. This backwash can irritate the lining of the esophagus, creating the usual GERD symptoms. Risk factors for developing GERD include:

  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy
  • Smoking
  • Asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Delayed stomach emptying
  • Connective tissue disorder scleroderma

Treatment

Besides lifestyle changes, over-the-counter medications are the most common GERD treatments. Antacids can neutralize stomach acid, and other medications may reduce the production of acid or block it altogether. But if these measures don’t work or if GERD symptoms persist, surgical treatment might be required.

Take Control of Your Digestive Health Today With BWell

Understanding common digestive issues is an important step towards achieving a healthier quality of life. While these conditions can be uncomfortable and disruptive, most can be managed effectively with lifestyle modifications and proper treatments. So, don’t let digestive issues sideline you—take control of your bowel health today with the help of your healthcare provider.

At BWell Healthy, we are dedicated to helping you establish a healthy lifestyle you will love. You can call us at 386-871-6477 or email us at bridget@bwellbhealthy.com.

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