Updated 11 February 2021

What are Digestive Problems?

Patient with stomach and upper abdominal pain from Ulcerative Colitis / Irritable Bowel Disease
Digestive problems are essentially any medical condition that can hamper the smooth functioning of the digestive system. The digestion process begins at the mouth and ends with the evacuation of waste through the rectum and anus. All the organs involved in the digestion process, including the mouth and rectum, form part of the digestive system. Other organs that make up this system are the throat and stomach. Apart from eliminating food waste, the digestive system is also responsible for absorbing the mineral compounds, carbohydrates, fats and oil, proteins, vitamins, and all the nutrients needed by the human body. When your digestive system is incapable of carrying out its primary responsibilities efficiently, then you may be experiencing one of many digestive problems. Some common digestive problems include constipation, food intolerance, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD), and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Constipation:

Constipation is a digestive problem characterised by a difficulty in eliminating waste. This is one common digestive problem that affects people of all ages. When your colon is having difficulty passing stool, you can be said to have constipation. This condition may be mild or chronic in nature.

Food intolerance:

This is also a digestive problem that affects millions of people around the world. Food intolerance is where your digestive system finds it difficult digesting particular types of food. Food intolerance should not be mistaken with food allergies. People that are lactose intolerant (that is, their bodies do not tolerate dairy products like milk and cheese) can be said to have a form of food intolerance since it affects their digestive system.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD):

Whenever stomach acids or bile moves into your esophagus and irritates it, you can experience heartburn. The most common symptom of heartburn is a burning sensation in your chest.  Heartburn is quite a common digestive problem and many adults will experience this problem in their lifetime. Where your heartburn tends to occur frequently, then you may be suffering from GORD. The frequent occurrence of GORD is capable of damaging your esophagus while causing great discomfort and adversely affecting your day to day living.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD):

A chronic inflammation of parts of your digestive tract can be a clear indication that you may have Inflammatory Bowel Disease or IBD. The two different types of IBD are:
  • Ulcerative colitis: this is an inflammation that effects just the colon.
  • Crohn’s disease: this is an IBD whereby any part of the gastrointestinal tract of a person can be affected, but this form of IBD predominantly affects both the colon and small intestine.

Symptoms of Common Digestive Problems

Below are the most common symptoms of the four highlighted digestive problems, namely constipation, food intolerance,  GORD, and IBD.

Some common signs of constipation include:

  • A feeling of fullness,
  • Bloating,
  • Abdominal aches and pains,
  • Passing of hard, painful stool

Typical food intolerance symptoms include:

  • Cramps,
  • Bloating,
  • Headaches,
  • Irritability,
  • Heartburn,
  • Gas,
  • Diarrhea and vomiting.

Common GORD symptoms include;

  • Dry coughing,
  • Sore throat,
  • Frequently having a sour taste in your mouth,
  • Chest pains and general discomfort,
  • Difficulty swallowing fluids and solid food.

Common symptoms of IBD include;

  • General fatigue,
  • Abdominal pains,
  • Vomiting and diarrhea,
  • Loss of appetite,
  • Weight loss,
  • Rectal bleeding,
  • Night sweats,
  • Incomplete evacuation of bowels.

Are Digestive Problems Contagious? 

The simple answer to this question is NO! However, there are some digestive problems that are hereditary and parents may pass on the condition to their children.

Tests & Diagnosis of Digestive Problems

In the case of food intolerance, it is important to have a personal food diary. If you experience symptoms of food intolerance, with the food diary you can easily review the foods you had consumed on the day the symptoms occur. This way you will be able to keep note of those foods that are responsible for triggering your food intolerance symptoms, and make plans to avoid eating them in the future. If you are intolerant to gluten-rich foods like rye, barley, and wheat, you may be suffering from coeliac disease. This is a form of food intolerance where you react to foods containing gluten. This autoimmune disorder may cause you to experience serious heartburn, cramps, bloating and abdominal pain. To avoid these symptoms, you will need to prepare and maintain a gluten-free dietary plan. A severe case of coeliac disease can lead to a damaged small intestine. Early diagnosis of your digestive problems by a doctor is important. Your doctor may refer you to a Specialist Gastroenterologist for further assessment and tests. The Gastroenterologist may conduct an endoscopy, colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy to visualize if there are any problems in your gastrointestinal tract.
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Treatment of Digestive Problems 

To avoid chronic constipation, it is important to eat foods that are rich in fibre. You also need to consume plenty of clean drinking water and avoid a sedentary lifestyle by engaging in regular exercise. In more serious cases of chronic constipation, the use of a stool softener like castor oil can help to soften hard stool and aid smooth elimination of waste. Using a prescribed over-the-counter purgative can also help to evacuate waste from your colon. In extreme cases, your doctor may prescribe the use of an enema to help combat your constipation issues. Your doctor may prescribe an analgesic to help with the abdominal pain experienced with IBD while surgery is often recommended for people with Crohn’s disease.

Recovery from Digestive Problems

A change in lifestyle can help with dealing with most digestive problems. You should avoid consuming high quantities of processed foods, while eating a healthy diet consisting of lots of fruits, vegetables and white meat (for example fish, chicken and turkey). Avoid eating red meat and avoid eating late into the night, especially just before bedtime. The human body's metabolism drastically slows down when you go to bed and eating a heavy meal just before bedtime is a recipe for constipation problems. That being said, sufficient rest and sleep is needed for your body to adequately recover from a digestive problem.  
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