If you have digestive issues, you’re not alone. It’s a common problem. Millions of Americans have at least one type of digestive problem.
Over 60 million people in the U.S. have heartburn, or acid reflux, monthly, and 15 million of them have it daily. And that’s just one of the many common digestive problems people face. Others have indigestion, nausea, gas or a handful of other annoying upsets. Whatever you call it, it can be a bother, and it can even disrupt your life in a major way.
You know something just isn’t right with your body, but how do you find relief? To get to the bottom of what’s causing the problem, you may need to play detective. What have you been eating? Are you drinking too much? Have you taken herbal or other cures?
Digestive Health Problems
Proper digestion is vital because your body needs nutrients from food and drink to stay healthy. The digestive system works to break down foods so your body can take them in. When the system isn’t working right, it affects your health and causes inconvenient, painful symptoms.
Early signs of problems may be bloating, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, incontinence, throwing up, belly pain and swallowing problems, says the National Institutes of Health.
Two of the most common problems are GERD and IBS.
Heartburn, or acid reflux, happens when the acid in your stomach meant to break down food comes back up. The acid irritates the lining of your esophagus. In some cases, it may be caused by GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease.
If this happens often, it’s time to reach out to your doctor, said Dr. Brian Morley, a Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plan medical director and a family physician.
Your doctor will ask a lot of questions about your family health record, what you eat and drink, and if you smoke. With that information, you and your doctor can decide on a plan of treatment.
A mild case of acid reflux isn’t generally a cause for concern, Morley said. It’s often treated first with over-the-counter medicines like Pepcid or Prilosec.
Here’s some things you can try on your own:
- Quit smoking.
- Cut back how much and when you drink alcohol and carbonated drinks.
- Get more exercise.
- Find ways to lower your stress level.
- Change your diet as needed, like skipping spicy foods that you know will cause a problem for you.
If it doesn’t go away in a month or two, it may be time for testing to check out the health of your esophagus and stomach. Two red flags are losing weight and swollen lymph nodes in the neck, belly or shoulders. Tell your doctor right away if you have problems swallowing or have a lot of pain.
Some digestive symptoms are a nuisance and can be very disruptive, but they usually don’t have serious consequences, Morley said. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), for example, can cause bloating and alternating constipation and diarrhea. About 10 to 15 percent of adults in the U.S. suffer from IBS symptoms.
If you’re always rushing to the bathroom, it’s time to make changes. Watching what you eat might help. You can make changes to your diet, like avoiding some foods and adding fiber. Getting more sleep, activity and some stress relief may also improve your symptoms.
But if making basic changes doesn’t help, it’s time to see your primary care doctor for a full physical, Morley said. Your doctor may recommend taking over-the-counter or prescription medicines to get relief for your symptoms. Some research shows that probiotics may help. Talk to your doctor before trying probiotics.
Your doctor may also suggest some types of mental health therapy or relaxation training.
You may see a gastroenterologist, a specialist with training in treating digestive issues, if nothing seems to help.Learn more about the many digestive diseases from the National Institutes of Health.
Look for the cause.
If you’ve been suffering in silence and your symptoms are spoiling your life, reach out to your primary care doctor to learn what’s behind your troubling symptoms. Don’t put it off, especially if you are losing weight without trying or seeing blood when you use the toilet.
Sources: Definition & Facts for GER & GERD, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDKD), 2014; Your Digestive System and How it Works, NIDDKD, 2017; Digestive Diseases, NIDDKD; Treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, NIDDKD, 2017; Digestive Diseases (signs), National Institutes of Health/U.S. National Library of Medicine; Common GI Symptoms, American College of Gastroenterology, 2019; Digestive Disorders, U.S. Department of Agriculture, nutrition.gov; Keeping Your Gut in Check: Healthy Options to Stay on Tract, News in Health, National Institutes of Health, 2017