Human digestive system starts from the mouth and ends up at rectum. It includes various vital organs like stomach, small intestine, large intestine, liver and pancreas and anus. The food that we eat is getting absorbed in the stomach and waste materials are sent to the kidneys and expelled through anus. Number of functions happen in the digestive system and various enzymes are secreted through which complete process of digestion is possible. Any blockage or disturbance in these functions can cause digestive disorders.
Digestive disorders are many ranging from common problems like constipation or diarrhea to more serious ones like ulcerative colitis or colon cancer. Some of the common signs of digestive problems are change in nature of stool (either too watery or very hard), gas formation, bloated feeling, heartburn and stomach pain. What we eat and drink forms the basis for all kinds of digestive disorders. It is necessary to watch what you put into your mouth since these are agents that decides on many chronic issues like diabetes, obesity, blood pressure, ulcer and cancer.
Some of the common digestive problems are discussed here.
- GERD :
Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease is the expanded form of GERD. Acid reflux is the main problem in this disease in which acid enzymes from the stomach are forced into the esophagus region causing heartburn and chest pain. Eating heavy meals and acidic foods is the major cause for GERD. Having few symptoms once in a while is not a problem. But when acidity and heartburn occur daily it can affect the quality of your life. More than 20% of Americans suffer from GERD as per the data given by NIDDK.
Persistent burning sensation in the chest region, frequent burping, bloating and stomach pain in the upper part are some of the signs of GERD. Often the symptoms are intense after you eat anything. By making small changes in eating most of the symptoms of GERD can be managed. Eat little food many times a day instead of having bulky meals twice/thrice a day. Include plenty of fresh fruits in your diet. Avoid acidic foods since it may worsen the symptoms. Over the counter antacids can be effective in controlling acidity and heartburn. In some cases, if the esophagus is severely inflamed it may require strong medication or even surgery.
- Gallstones :
Gallstones are small deposits that gets collected from the food particles becoming hard and harder in the gallbladder. Gallbladder is one of the organs present in the digestive system that produces bile to help the digestion process. Gallstones is common in the USA and it is believed that around 20 million people are having gallstones. One reason for gallstone formation is eating too much of fatty foods and for some people it is formed due to improper functioning of gallbladder. Presence of gallstones can cause intense pain the abdomen, more particularly in the upper right portion. Based on the nature of stones, medications are prescribed to dissolve it and in some cases gallbladder is removed surgically.
- Constipation :
Constipation is the most common problem for millions of people around the globe. Constipation is the process of passing hard stools with pain and one may not be able to empty the stomach fully due to constipation. The colon or intestine may not pass the stools effectively through the digestive tract resulting in constipation. Bowel movements can be painful and it may take more time for the person to pass stool. Including plenty of fiber and drinking enough fluids and doing regular exercise can help in overcoming constipation. Medications are given in the form of laxatives or suppositories for getting relief from the symptoms.
- Intolerance of Food/Allergy :
For some people certain types of foods are not tolerated by the digestive system which is known as food intolerance. Celiac disease is a kind of food intolerance in which taking gluten foods can cause many kinds of digestive problems. Some of the symptoms of food intolerance are diarrhea, bloated feeling, abdominal cramps, heartburn and gas formation. People with celiac disease should totally avoid gluten foods like wheat, rye and barley. There is no cure for intolerance of food and one can prevent the symptoms by avoiding such foods. One out of every 100 Americans are suffering from celiac disease as per the data available.
- Crohn’s Disease :
Inflammatory bowel syndrome and its related digestive diseases are grouped under Crohn’s disease. This is an autoimmune disorder with no apparent cause. The body’s own immune system will produce antibodies to attack and destroy digestive cells causing symptoms like constipation or diarrhea, severe abdominal cramps, rectal bleeding and loss of weight. Based on the intensity of symptoms, treatment is given in the form of pain relievers (oral and topical creams) and immunosuppressant drugs. Including probiotic foods can help you in relieving symptoms. Diet control and stress management is absolutely necessary for managing IBS.
- Ulcerative Colitis :
This is yet another type of autoimmune disorder affecting the large intestine or colon. It produces painful sores in the lining of colon causing intense pain or cramps and frequent bowel movements. Medications are given to control the symptoms and in serious cases the colon is removed (in part or full) by surgery.
- Hemorrhoids :
Hemorrhoids (piles) is a common problem in elderly adults. Sharp pain in the anus, burning pain, and bleeding from anus are some of the signs of hemorrhoids. It occurs due to swelling of blood vessels present in the end portion of the digestive system. It results in chronic constipation and strain while bowel movements. Including plenty of fiber and water can help in alleviating the symptoms. Painkillers and suppositories can give some relief but there is no permanent cure. You need to depend on pelvic floor exercises and diet modification to prevent the symptoms.
- Diverticulitis :
This is a condition in which small bag like structures are formed at some weak points of the colon. For many elderly people this may not cause any symptoms. But if the bag ruptures it may bleed through anus with pain. Good liquid diet with plenty of fiber and antibiotics can be helpful in managing the symptoms. In more severe cases the pouches will be removed by surgery.
- Anal Fissure :
Anal fissure is more or less same as hemorrhoids causing rectal bleeding and sharp burning pain while making bowel movements. Straining too much while passing stool can increase the symptoms making it worse. High fiber diet, plenty of water and exercises can help in controlling the fissure. Include whole grains, fresh vegetables and legumes in your daily diet.
- Incontinence :
Incontinence is the condition of not holding the stool properly until one reaches the toilet. Often people with incontinence would wet their pants or trousers before using the toilet.
Some of the symptoms of digestive disorders include bloating, constipation/diarrhea, nausea/vomiting, indigestion, stomach pain, acidity and loss/gain of weight. In serious cases it can cause rectal bleeding.
Gastroenterologist is the person who deals with problems in digestive system. He may use several testing procedures like colonoscopy, endoscopy and ultrasound. Minor procedures would be done during endoscopy testing.
- Home Remedies :
Treatment for various kinds of digestive system disorders is choosing the right diet, lifestyle modifications and following the instructions of your doctor. Most of the symptoms can be managed by sticking on to the balanced diet and avoiding fatty, fried and spicy foods. For those with intolerance and food allergy it is better to totally avoid such foods in future. You should identify what type of foods trigger such response. For some people traveling can cause flaring of symptoms of digestive problems and it is wise to avoid frequent travels. You can make a note of foods you eat and its response to identify such triggers.
Stick on to balanced healthy diet. Don’t eat large meals; instead you can choose little meals several times a day. Do not increase the quantity of food even if the item is your favorite. Always take time to eat slowly after chewing the food properly. Don’t go to bed immediately after eating. Maintain at least 3 hours’ gap between dinner and sleeping time. Include fiber rich food in your daily diet since it is effective in loosening the stools and regulate the digestion process. Reduce the intake of coffee/tea and replace them with plenty of water and fresh juices. After doing exercise increase the fluid consumption to prevent dehydration.
- Medical Treatment :
Always complete the course of medication prescribed by your doctor even if you have no symptoms. Certain types of digestive problems cannot be cured by drugs alone. In that case you need to choose right diet to reduce the symptoms. In severe cases surgery would be done for correcting/repairing the damage.