Digestive health is complicated, and according to one consultant from the University College Hospital in London, around 40 percent of people report suffering from at least one digestive complaint at any given time.1
Common digestive issues include abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhea, heartburn, acid reflux, and indigestion. These issues are fairly common symptoms, and the tricky issue is that those symptoms can be caused by any number of conditions, from celiac to irritable bowel disease (IBS), food intolerances, bacterial infections, or stomach ulcers.
Additionally, digestive issues are common all over the world. In the United States alone, there are 14.7 million adults who have been diagnosed with stomach ulcers, and in 2015, 32.3 million physician’s office visits resulted in some form of digestive health-related diagnosis.2
Despite these recent statistics, digestive health has been something that people have struggled with throughout history. Even as recently as the 1800s, issues like food poisoning were serious public health concerns.3
Today, there are better controls on how food is stored and served, so food poisoning is less common. Other conditions such as stomach ulcers are being diagnosed more quickly and treated more effectively today than they were 30 years ago.4
So, though it might seem that with all the talk about IBS, gluten intolerance, and other similar issues, that people are suffering from more problems today than they used to. It’s likely, however, that physicians and individuals are simply more aware of the issues and have better options for treatment.
Common Digestive Issues Explored
Some digestive complaints can be managed easily with diet changes. Other complaints are more serious and may highlight an underlying medical condition. Nevertheless, some of the most common digestive issues are highlighted below.
Stomach ulcers are known by a few other names, including peptic or gastric ulcers, and should not be confused with ulcers in other parts of the digestive system. They are an open sore that appears in the lining of the stomach. Usually, someone who has a stomach ulcer will experience a burning pain in their stomach. However, some people simply experience sensations of heartburn, indigestion, or nausea.
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Stomach ulcers can be caused by a bacterial infection or by long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. For a long time, people thought that stress and diet were contributing factors to stomach ulcers, but there is not a lot of evidence to support this.5
Diarrhea is a form of gastric distress that causes people to need to empty their bowels more often. People with diarrhea pass loose and watery stools several times a day. Diarrhea is unpleasant, but short bursts of it are not usually harmful.
Very serious diarrhea, however, can lead to dehydration, which is serious and must be managed through rehydration medicines to replace the lost fluids and electrolytes. If you suffer from diarrhea and it lasts more than three to four days, then you should seek medical attention.6
Constipation is the opposite of diarrhea. Someone who is suffering from constipation will struggle to have regular bowel movements. Their stools may be hard, lumpy or dry, and painful to pass.7
Short-term constipation can be managed with laxatives. If you notice that you are suffering from constipation regularly, then you should look at your diet and see if you’re getting enough fiber. Studies suggest that as many as 90 percents of American adults do not take in their recommended daily fiber intake.8 If improving fiber intake doesn’t help, then consult a doctor.
Acid reflux is also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). It is a condition which is characterized by a burning sensation in the esophagus and an acidic taste in the mouth. Some people suffer from acid reflux so seriously that they begin to experience trouble swallowing.
The symptoms are caused by acid escaping from the stomach through the lower esophageal sphincter and entering the esophagus. It is not uncommon for people to experience occasional bouts of acid reflux if they overeat or eat before exercise.
Though occasional bouts of GERD are not a major concern, if someone suffers from attacks more than twice a weak, they should seek professional medical advice.9
Bloating is something that many people suffer from. If you are bloated, your belly feels full and tight and might actually look a little distended. Some women suffer from bloating at certain times of the month. In those cases, the bloating goes away with their menstrual period.
Other reasons for bloating include overeating, lactose intolerance, and constipation. Additionally, some medications have to bloat as a common side effect. If you are suffering from bloating, and it does not go away after a few days, then it is important that you speak to your doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions.10
Remedying Digestive Issues
Treatments used for digestive issues will depend on what it is that you have. Most stomach problems will resolve themselves within a few days without too much issue, but some do require medication or diet and lifestyle changes.
Antibiotics are prescribed when someone has a bacterial infection. It is important that anyone who is prescribed antibiotics finish the course, even if they think they are feeling better. This is because bacteria can adapt to antibiotics, and if someone stops taking them before they have worked fully, this could lead to some bacteria surviving and becoming resistant to that type of antibiotic.11
However, one issue with antibiotics is that taking a full course of antibiotics will kill not just the bacteria that are being targeted by the course but other bacteria that are vulnerable to that antibiotic too. Because there are a number of bacteria living in the intestines that actually fulfill a useful role in the body, the death of that bacteria could result in negative effects for the body.12
Interestingly, it’s not just antibiotics that can affect gut bacteria. Antiseptics can too and so can many other drugs. In a study testing about 1,000 different drugs, out of the antibacterials that were tested (antibiotics and antiseptics), 78 percent had an impact on bacteria in the gut. Interestingly, though, out of the non-antibiotic drugs that were tested, 27 percent also had an impact on gut bacteria.13
Complementary Remedies for Digestive Issues
Complementary and alternative therapies are gradually gaining traction in society as something to be used in conjunction with clinical treatments for digestive issues.
Some of the top complementary remedies for digestive issues are highlighted below.
The idea of using probiotics is that taking them in, for example by drinking milk that contains them, can help to rebalance gut flora. The basic idea is sound, but the benefits have not yet been conclusively shown, and since there are numerous different probiotics, and each individual will need different ones for their gut, it cannot be guaranteed that using something like a probiotic milk or yogurt product would have the desired result.
One of the main challenges with probiotics is that they are typically ingested orally, which means they have to pass through the stomach. Because of this, there is a high chance that the acid in the stomach would break down the probiotics before they reached the intestines where they are needed the most. A tiny percentage of the probiotic strain might survive, but it is hard to predict what percentage will, which makes dosage difficult.14
Acupuncture is frequently considered as a remedy for bloating, nausea, and stomach pain. There are many studies that show that it is an effective treatment, although researchers have not fully discovered just why it is effective.
It is thought that there may be some physiological response to acupuncture, but that there is also psychological impact in that some patients are looking for a non-pharmacological treatment, and that the ancient roots of the practice make individuals feel that it is trustworthy.15
Essential oils are another type of complementary therapy that has gained a lot of attention over the last few decades and that has been a part of medicine throughout history. There is a lot of evidence to show that essential oils can have a positive impact on mental and physical wellbeing. For example, studies into gut health show that essential oils can have an impact on both gut bacteria and functionality in a range of animals.16,17,18
Essential oils are found in a wide range of plants, and a lot of the elements that make them so effective are the same factors that make herbal remedies effective. However, essential oils are incredibly concentrated. For instance, the distillation of one pound of lavender essential oil takes over 200 pounds of lavender flowers.19
Additionally, many of these oils have calming and soothing effects, can help to curb cravings, settle nerves, and help with the perception of pain. If you are suffering from general gastric distress and experiencing regular stomach aches, nausea, or indigestion, then essential oils could help to manage some of the symptoms.
Lifestyle can have a significant impact on bodily function. For example, studies show that intense exercise increases the rate of gastric emptying compared to being at rest and that taking in carbohydrates can slow the rate of gastric emptying.20
This knowledge can be employed to manage issues like heartburn. Someone who suffers from severe acid reflux may benefit from eating smaller portions and more protein compared to simple carbohydrates, for example. In addition, they may want to allow their stomach to empty a little before engaging in moderate-intensity exercise since such exercise won’t encourage their stomach to empty any more quickly but could lead to gastric distress.
Additionally, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases gives some clear recommendations for foods to eat and avoid in order to maintain good gastric health.
If you are struggling with gas and digestive discomfort, then you may want to try following their recommendations.21 To reduce gas, try avoiding fizzy drinks, high-fat foods, fried foods, sudden indulgence in high fiber foods, simple carbohydrates, and sugar.
If changing your diet to a more healthy one does not have an impact on your digestive health after a few weeks, then it may be worth going to the doctor to have some tests conducted.
Live Your Best Life
Everyone has their vices, but in general, those who can live a healthy lifestyle are less likely to experience gastric distress. For instance, quitting smoking can help prevent acid reflux, and avoiding excessive alcohol consumption can also protect against acid-related digestive disorders.22
Furthermore, stress can slow down digestion in some people, meaning they are more likely to feel bloated or constipated. In others, stress can speed up digestion to the point that they need to empty their bowels more frequently. Neither of these results is desirable. Because of this, finding ways to relax and unwind, whether that’s through gentle yoga or aromatherapy can be beneficial.
Regular exercise and a healthy diet will help to keep your gut flora in check. Gut flora is in a constant state of flux, and even if individuals eat the same things every day, the balance of bacteria will change over time.23 It will take patience and willpower to achieve such changes. Individuals are responsible for their own digestive health, so take control of yours and prepare for the short and long-term benefits.
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