In order for our bodies to work properly and be healthy, a properly-functioning digestive system is paramount. Our digestive system breaks down nutrients from the food and drinks we consume into smaller parts that make it possible to absorb and use for energy, growth and cell repair.
The digestive process is comprised of the following organs – all of which play a vital role in the undertaking: the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, liver and large intestine. Our nerves and hormones also help to control the process: First, to signal to our brain that we are, in fact, hungry, to produce digestive juices that allow the digested food to move through our GI tract easier, and also to send signals to our gut muscles to relax and push the food through our intestines.
If your digestion is out of whack, it could mean more than just discomforting symptoms. Minor problems left untreated could lead to serious, chronic illnesses. However, with all the various types of digestive issues, some bodily signs can be easily misread. Here are the warning signs of the most common ones.
An issue among the most common in the United States, chronic constipation is a problem where the colon cannot pass or move stools through the rest of the digestive system for waste. This can be an issue for people who are deficient in fiber, which increases stool bulk and allows for easy movement through the digestive system. Luckily, this condition can be curbed through fibrous foods, adequate exercise and water. Symptoms include fewer and more painful bowel movements than usual, bloating and abdominal pain.
Not to be confused with food allergies which can present itself in the skin or respiratory system, food intolerance solely affects digestion. It can indicate that your digestive system cannot tolerate certain foods. Warning signs include bloating and/or cramps, heartburn, diarrhea, headache, irritability, gas or vomiting. Keeping a food diary and tracking what you eat each day can help to identify which foods are causing you trouble.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Gastroesophageal literally refers to the stomach and esophagus; reflux refers to the flow back and return of something. In that sense, GERD is a condition where the stomach acids go back into the esophagus, causing chest pain and severe frequent heartburn. Other symptoms include chest discomfort, dry cough, sour taste in the mouth, sore throat and swallowing difficulties. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, be sure to seek medical attention to prevent further damage to the esophagus.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
Inflammatory bowel disease is an umbrella term used to describe disorders that involve chronic inflammation and swelling of your digestive tract – the two types being IBD ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Prolonged inflammation results in damage to the GI (digestive) tract. IBD’s hallmark symptoms are abdominal pain and diarrhea, however, others can include fatigue, incomplete bowel movements, loss of appetite and subsequent weight loss, night sweats and rectal bleeding.
Though some digestive issues can be alleviated through certain lifestyle and diet changes, speaking with a medical professional (particularly a gastroenterologist) can go a long way in terms of getting proper treatment.