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    What's Really Causing Your Digestive Issues

    by Colleen Stinchcombe - May 14 , 2018

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    There are few things less pleasant than having digestive problems. Nobody wants to spend a beautiful day on the toilet, and nothing ruins a good time more than a rumbling, unhappy belly. And yet most of us have been faced with inconvenient diarrhea, unrestful sleep due to heartburn or an uncomfortable day thanks to constipation.

    If it’s a short, passing issue, it could be any number of things from a virus to food poisoning, and as long as you make a quick recovery, great. But if you’re experiencing ongoing digestive discomfort, don’t just keep popping antacids and hope for the best. It’s important to figure out what’s causing your issue and to start talking with your doctor, who can give you a customized treatment plan.

    But while you’re waiting on your doctor’s appointment, here are some of the most common digestive is-sues in North America that might be causing your stomach or intestinal distress. If the symptoms look familiar, bring them up in order to start a dialogue with your doctor.

    1. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

    Most of us have experienced — or at the very least experienced — heartburn. More than 6- million Americans experience it once a month, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. Heartburn is a feeling of burning in your upper chest area, or the feeling that your stomach contents are coming back up your throat. Heartburn is normal to have every once in a while, but if you’re getting heartburn more regularly, it could be a symptom of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).

    GERD affects between 18 and 28 percent of the American adult population. Your heartburn might be GERD if two or more days a week you have mild symptoms, or at least one day a week you have moder-ate or severe symptoms. And it’s not a disease to shrug off, as GERD can raise your risk of esophagus damage and even esophageal cancer.

    2. Constipation

    Everybody poops, but some people may poop too infrequently, leading to uncomfortable constipation. Signs of constipation include having fewer than three bowel movements a week, straining to have bowel movements, lumpy or hard stools, feeling strangely “full”, feeling like there’s a blockage or needing as-sistance to pass stool, like pressing on your stomach.

    If you’ve experienced a recent change in your bowel movements, it’s worth talking to your doctor, as there are several diseases, disorders and issues that can lead to constipation. However, the most common causes are dehydration, too little fiber intake, low physical activity or certain medications. It’s also im-portant not to ignore the urge to defecate and to try to create a regular routine for bowel movements.

    3. Peptic ulcers

    One in ten Americans will experience a peptic ulcer in their lifetime. A peptic ulcer is a hole in the lining of the stomach or upper part of the small intestine. The lining protects sensitive tissue from being irritated by gastric juices. When a hole appears, the gastric acids cause a painful burning, gnawing sensation.

    Doctors aren’t entirely clear on what causes ulcers. It used to be believe that ulcers were often due to stress or poor diet, but more recent understanding points to a certain type of bacteria called H. Pylori, as well as frequent use of over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen and aspirin. Smoking and heavy alcohol use also seem to contribute to ulcer development.

    Ulcers are typically treated with antacids and antibiotics, but it’s important to see a doctor if you suspect you may have the symptoms of one, as untreated ulcers can lead to anemia, bleeding and stomach cancer.

    4. Diverticulitis

    According to the Mayo Clinic, sometimes small, bulging pouches form in the lining of a person’s digestive system, most often the large colon. These are called diverticula, and they are very common in people older than 40.

    Most of the time diverticula don’t cause any problems and so people don’t know they have them. But in about 20 percent of the population the diverticula gets inflamed or infected, leading to fever, nausea, se-vere abdominal pain and other issues, and this is called diverticulitis. Treatment ranges from oral antibiotics and liquid diet to intravenous antibiotics and surgery.

    5. Lactose Intolerance

    Does your stomach feel bad after consuming dairy? It could be lactose intolerance, which affects some 75 percent of the world population, though certain groups, like those descended from Northern Europeans, have a much lower incidence. Lactose intolerance also increases with age, as the small intestine starts to make less lactase, the enzyme that digests lactose.

    Symptoms include bloating, painful gas, diarrhea and nausea, typically within 30 minutes to 2 hours of eating or drinking dairy. People can avoid the side effects by consuming less or no dairy, but keep in mind that some medications like birth control also contain lactose.

    A person with mild lactose intolerance might also consider only eating dairy in conjunction with other foods, which helps in the digestion process, or limiting your dairy to processed or fermented foods like cheese and yogurt. There are also lactase supplements available that can help them better process dairy.

    6. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

    IBS is a disorder of the large intestine whose symptoms include bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, cramping and abdominal pain, says the Mayo Clinic. It’s common, but only a small portion of those with symptoms experience it as a chronic, severe issue.

    The severity of the IBS often fluctuates for patients, and unfortunately there aren’t many clear treatments. Doctors believe that there are many factors to irritable bowel syndrome such as muscle contractions, nervous system issues, intestinal inflammation or infection and changes in the gut microbiome.

    Treatment can include changes to diet, increasing fluids, getting regular exercise and sleep, and certain medications. It’s important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms so they can come up with a com-prehensive plan to help with IBS symptoms.

    7. Gallstones

    Some 80 percent of the population have gallstones, which are deposits of hardened digestive fluid. But for most people, gallstones won’t cause any symptoms. If a doctor finds gallstones but they aren’t causing problems, the doctor may still recommend lifestyle changes like recommending low-fat foods or adding fiber to the diet.

    But if gallstones are causing you pain or discomfort, particularly sudden, intensifying pain in your upper-right abdomen area, it’s likely because they’re blocking bile from moving through the gallbladder. In these cases, a doctor might recommend surgery. Dark urine, clay-colored stool, vomiting, diarrhea or excessive burping are also symptoms of gallbladder issues.

    A doctor will diagnose gallstones with ultrasound, CT scan, a radionuclide scan, or a camera and X-ray, all of which will allow them to see inside your body so they can make a responsible plan for you.

    Of course, just because these are the most common types of digestive issues doesn’t mean they’re the only ones. If you’re having abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, nausea, diarrhea or any other kind of digestive distress, talk to your doctor.


    Colleen Stinchcombe is a writer living in Phoenix, AZ. She writes for publishers, brands and individuals. Her work can be found on, Green Living AZ, the Brandless blog, Canadian Pharmacy Blog and elsewhere.


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