Words like “indigestion” and “upset stomach” mean different things to different people. So, how do you identify exactly what’s bothering your digestion? Let’s look at the top three causes of digestive disorders: Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gluten sensitivity. Plus, we’ll learn when a leaky gut might be causing your problems. Discover how to identify, treat and prevent these intestinal disorders.
All Too Common and Preventable
Approximately 70 million North Americans suffer from digestive diseases. More than 230,000 people in the United States alone die of digestive-related disease every year, and nearly 2 million people end up disabled. Also, at a cost of more than $100 billion per year, it’s obvious that the problem has reached astronomical proportions. The remarkable thing is that much of this suffering can be avoided.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
GERD might be the most common ailment responsible when someone says they have indigestion. GERD is caused by stomach acid rising up into your esophagus (“food pipe”). The symptoms of GERD may include:
- A burning sensation in your chest (heartburn); occurs mostly after eating or when lying down after a meal
- Chest discomfort or pain
- Trouble swallowing
- Regurgitation of food or sour liquid
- Sensation of a lump in your throat
Some less common symptoms of GERD may be associated with nighttime discomforts, such as:
- Chronic cough
- New or worsening asthma
- Disrupted sleep
The complications of GERD can include narrowing of the esophagus or esophageal ulcers. Even worse, GERD might lead to precancerous changes in the lower esophagus.
To prevent GERD, consider these factors:
- Weight control: Being overweight increases pressure on the stomach and leads to reflux
- Quit smoking: Nicotine is believed to relax the muscles around the lower part of your esophagus which allows stomach acid to rise up
- Avoid large meals or eating before bedtime: Increases acid production and leads to more acid flow into the esophagus
- Avoid certain foods: Fatty or fried foods, tomato sauce, onions and garlic are among the foods that identify and avoid foods that trigger symptoms
- Limit intake of beverages: This includes alcohol or coffee as these are notorious for causing GERD symptoms
- Avoid certain medications: Such as aspirin or ibuprofen
Some other techniques to treat or prevent GERD:
- Elevate the head of your bed: Try a mattress wedge or blocks under the posts at the head of the bed; raising 6 to 9 inches might do the trick
- Don’t lie down after a meal: Wait 2 to 3 hours after a meal before lying down
- Eat slowly: You mother said chew your food, and she was right; this makes you eat less and allows you to digest better
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
IBS affects 10 to 15 percent of people at any given time. It’s a disorder of the large intestine, and the exact cause of IBS is unknown. IBS symptoms are highly variable, and perhaps more than one problem contributes to what is currently identified as IBS.
Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome can include:
- Abdominal discomfort, cramping, bloating or pain usually relieved after a bowel movement
- Excess gas/flatulence
- Diarrhea or constipation: These symptoms can alternate with each other in the same person
- Mucus in the stool
In many people with IBS, there are times when the symptoms are severe, and other times when there are no symptoms at all.
Nobody is quite sure what causes IBS, but some of the theories are:
- Abnormal intestinal wall muscle contraction: Your intestines are lined with layers of muscle that contract to move digested food forward; a problem with intestinal muscle coordination might cause symptoms of IBS
- Problems with nerves or nerve endings to the intestines: Your nervous system tells the muscles when to contract; if there is a problem in the nerves supplying the intestines, then they do not contract normally
- Intestinal inflammation: Some IBS sufferers have a higher amount of immune-system cells in their intestines; this could lead to pain and diarrhea
- After an intestinal infection (gastroenteritis), some people develop IBS: A general bacterial overgrowth might cause problems
- Microflora abnormality: Everyone’s intestines have bacteria; if the amount or type of bacteria changes, it could lead to digestive problems
Preventing or Treating IBS
One of the challenges in treating IBS is that it might be a cluster of problems instead of just one disorder. Some experts recommend avoiding foods that are not absorbed in the gut easily. These foods ferment in the intestines, which could cause symptoms. Fiber causes a variety of reactions in people with IBS; for some, it helps while others get worse.
It might be worth testing different foods that are commonly associated with IBS symptoms. Eliminate each one for about 4 to 6 weeks and see if your symptoms improve. If there is no change, you can return to eating that food and eliminate the next one on the list.
Here are foods that might cause IBS symptoms:
- Conventional, pasteurized dairy products (most dairy from the supermarket)
- Gluten (wheat, barley and rye)
- Processed white sugar and refined flour
- Caffeine and alcohol
- Common allergens, such as eggs, nuts and shellfish
- Spicy foods
- Vegetables and fruit (citrus fruits, apples, onions, garlic, broccoli and leafy vegetables)
Because gut flora may have something to do with IBS, some experts suggest treatment with probiotics. This is thought to restore the natural bacteria balance in the intestines. Probiotics like lactobacillus are often added to foods like yogurt.
Gluten Sensitivity and Celiac Disease
Gluten proteins are found naturally in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten helps food maintain its shape — the stickiness keeps foods from crumbling. When people can’t tolerate gluten-containing foods, they are either gluten-sensitive or have celiac disease. Gluten sensitivity is also referred to as “nonceliac” gluten sensitivity.
Although gluten sensitivity can be bothersome, it is not as serious as celiac disease. Plus, celiac disease is much less common. Celiac disease can be confirmed with testing, and it can lead to severe intestinal damage and malnutrition.
The symptoms of gluten sensitivity include:
- Abdominal pain and bloating
- Bowel abnormalities (diarrhea or constipation)
- Aerophagia: Excessive swallowing of air
- Aphthous stomatitis: Formation of mouth ulcers
Other gluten sensitivity symptoms may include joint pains, headache, fatigue and memory problems.
Treating Gluten Sensitivity
The best treatment is avoidance of gluten-containing foods. This might take a big chunk out of your diet since most bread and pasta contain gluten. Quinoa, buckwheat, arrowroot, millet, potatoes and rice are nongluten-containing starches, which can be used as a substitute. These days a whole host of gluten-free foods are available. Remember, fruits, veggies and animal sources of protein are all gluten-free.
What about Leaky Gut Syndrome?
Nutritional elements are absorbed from your intestines and then enter the bloodstream. This is a selective process since you don’t want toxins and waste getting into your blood. Your intestinal lining has special cells, and these cells are joined by tight junctions. If these tight junctions don’t work properly, it can lead to leaky gut syndrome, which is characterized by an inflammatory process.
Symptoms of leaky gut may include:
- Bloating and digestive problems
- Food sensitivities
- Thyroid disorder
- Joint ache
- Skin problems
- Weight gain
Causes of leaky gut may include:
- Certain foods such as wheat, rice, spelt and soy
- Chronic stress and weak immune system
- Toxins in a water supply or overuse of antibiotics, aspirin and ibuprofen
- Gut microflora imbalance
How to Treat Leaky Gut
Some experts recommend specific foods and supplements to treat leaky gut, such as:
- Bone broth has collagen and amino acids that may help repair damaged intestines
- Probiotic-containing dairy products that may restore your gut flora and promote healing, such as probiotic yogurt and raw cheese
- Fermented vegetables contain organic acids that might correct intestinal pH; try sauerkraut or kimchi
- Omega-3 fats and anti-inflammatory foods like green leafy vegetables, broccoli, blueberries, salmon and walnuts are great choices
- Drink only bottled or filtered water
Stress Reduction Is Critical
In all the disorders mentioned in this article, stress plays a key role. This doesn’t mean it’s all in your head. Stress leads to biochemical reactions that can make any disease worse. By reducing stress in your life, it could lead to a significant reduction in digestive symptoms.
Sometimes, the solutions are much simpler than you think: a walk in the park, time spent with friends, regular exercise and a good night’s sleep. These remedies will help all aspects of your health, including your digestion.
For recipes to keep your digestive system healthy, check out Cooking for Digestive Health, here!
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