It may not be a topic you’re eager to talk about with friends, family members, or first dates, but digestive health is a big deal and it plays a major role in how you feel — mentally and physically. Because bathroom issues are usually considered too taboo to discuss in public, it can be tough to know what’s “normal” or how to identify and treat mild problems.
“One of the biggest mistakes I see is people who have gut discomfort or issues just writing it off or throwing their hands in the air and assuming they are just stuck with these conditions,” says Arizona-based provider, Natasha Bhuyan, MD. “People just think this is their baseline and will accept it, because they may have been dismissed by other healthcare providers in the past. It's tough because our bodies are all different, but if you think your gut health isn't where you want it to be, please reach out to your primary care provider.”
While it’s always best to bring any concerns to your physician, getting to know some of the most common digestive issues can help you make more informed choices on an everyday basis. Here are three of the main ones you should know about:
1. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a significant problem for many people — about 10% to 15% of people in the United States, to be specific. The chronic condition is related to an issue with the bowels, but symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. While some people experience frequent diarrhea, others may be consistently constipated, or even alternate between the two. There’s no single known cause of IBS, but some factors that may play a role are inflammation and/or infections in the intestines and changes in gut bacteria. Another major contributor to IBS? Anxiety.
“It's amazing what a strong link our gut has to our brain,” Bhuyan says. “I commonly see people with loose or erratic stools. Oftentimes, it's linked to stress and anxiety. When people are able to do things like practice mindfulness or engage in counseling, they are often surprised at how much their gut feels better, too.”
Bhuyan says constipation is another issue she frequently treats in her practice. “I commonly see patients with constipation for a range of reasons,” Bhuyan says. “This can be linked to diet, hydration, exercise, and more. We also see that having constipation for long periods of time can perpetuate having more constipation — it can become a vicious cycle.”
Different treatment strategies may work for different people, depending on the root cause of their IBS, but in some cases, avoiding high-fat foods or incorporating more dietary fiber may help reduce symptoms. Stress reduction can also play a huge role for many people in mitigating their IBS symptoms, so finding ways to meditate, breathe with intention, exercise, and relax may all be beneficial techniques.
2. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
Also known as acid reflux or heartburn, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is a burning sensation in the chest that occurs when stomach acid seeps into the esophagus after eating. While the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) usually opens enough to allow food into the stomach and let gas out, that muscle can weaken or fail to shut properly. When that happens, the acid can flow back and cause that signature fiery feeling.
GERD can affect just about anyone, but certain conditions, like pregnancy, obesity, or connective tissue disorders, can increase the risk of developing it. Additionally, certain factors, like smoking, eating high-fat or dried foods, eating late at night, drinking certain beverages like coffee or alcohol, or taking specific medications, like aspirin, can all contribute to the risk of developing GERD as well.
Treatments for GERD vary, but some common solutions include over-the-counter medications that reduce acid production. Histamine blockers, like famotidine, and proton pump inhibitors, such as omeprazole, can help control your symptoms. If you rely on these medications chronically, however, it is important to talk them over with your PCP as these medications can have short and long term side effects. But for many people with GERD, lifestyle and diet modifications can go a long way in reducing symptoms. Avoiding spicy foods, dairy, alcohol, caffeine, and citrus may help cut down issues (if you need ideas on how to replace those items in your everyday life, be sure to check out these simple food swaps). Experts also recommend people with GERD avoid lying down after a meal, chew food slowly and thoroughly, and elevate the head of their bed. And everyone — regardless of whether they’re experiencing GERD symptoms or not — should seriously consider cutting smoking out of their life.
3. Food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances
While food allergies aren't super common (about 4% of adults have them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), food sensitivities or intolerances may be much more widespread. Food allergies and sensitivities involve an immune reaction to foods , whereas intolerances have more to do with difficulty processing certain foods in our gut. Intolerances, sensitivities and allergies can cause an array of unpleasant or even debilitating symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, headaches, fatigue, nausea, and more.
“I see people with a range of food sensitivities they don't even know they have, until they cut that particular food out of their diet and start to feel better,” Bhuyan says. “A great place to start is by keeping a food and symptom diary, which can help you better track your bowel and gut health in correlation with the foods you’re eating.”
While everyone reacts to food differently, there are some particular foods that are known to be more likely to trigger intolerances or sensitivities, including dairy and gluten. The best way to narrow down the potential causes of troublesome digestive issues is to take Bhuyan’s advice and keep a journal. If you’re noticing a pattern, you may benefit from seeing a dietitian who can help guide you through an elimination diet, which involves temporarily cutting out certain known triggers and slowly reintroducing them to your diet in order to pinpoint the culprit of your problems. Because elimination diets can be difficult, be sure to consult a professional and have some self compassion as you navigate the road to better health.
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