In this article:
The digestive system includes the mouth with the salivary glands, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, pancreas, and liver. (1) All these organs work in tandem to break down the food you consume into nutrients.
These nutrients fuel the body to carry out its life-sustaining functions. They also facilitate cell generation and repair, which allow the body to grow and heal.
However, various factors such as poor diet, an unhealthy lifestyle, side effects of medications, and illnesses can damage the digestive system over the course of your life. This is why many people tend to develop digestive distress as they grow older.
In the United States, digestive problems are very common. A recent survey from 2018 revealed that 61% of respondents had one or more gastrointestinal symptoms per week (2) These symptoms included heartburn/reflux, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, and difficulty swallowing.
The Digestion Process
Digestion refers to the process by which food is broken down into nutrients, which are eventually absorbed into the blood circulation for the cells of the human body to utilize.
Food is broken down into smaller pieces first by chewing and then by the grinding action of the stomach. The esophagus functions as a conduit for food and fluid to pass from the mouth to the stomach.
Ingested food is first exposed to digestive enzymes in the mouth where the salivary glands produce mucus and amylase. (3) Amylase is also produced by the pancreas and aids in the digestion of carbohydrates. (3) The stomach produces pepsin, which aids in the digestion of proteins. (4)
Digestion is completed in the small intestine, where pancreatic digestive enzymes and liver bile combine with partially digested stomach contents. The majority of nutrients ingested are absorbed in the small intestine. What is not utilized by the body is then passed into the colon, where water and electrolyte absorption occurs and waste is eliminated. (5)
Types of Digestive Disorders
Common digestive problems include the following:
1. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or acid reflux
GERD is a very common problem causing heartburn (6) and indigestion. Excessive acid exposure in the lower esophagus is thought to be the cause of the symptoms. A loose gastroesophageal flap valve (valve at the end of the esophagus) is the suggested cause of excessive acid exposure. (7)
Certain foods, including coffee, chocolates, peppermint, spicy foods, citrus, alcohol, and fatty foods, increase acid reflux by loosening the valve or delaying the emptying of the stomach, or both. Some of these foods are direct irritants.
Obesity also predisposes one to acid reflux by increasing intra-abdominal pressure. Pregnancy causes loosening of the gastroesophageal valve and increases intra-abdominal pressure.
Initial treatment for GERD is lifestyle modification. If this treatment fails, acid reducers can be used. Alarm symptoms such as difficulty swallowing or failure of response to treatment measures warrant further evaluation.
Constipation is a common gastrointestinal problem characterized by the passage of hard, infrequent stools. (8) It can be caused by a hormonal imbalance such as hypothyroidism, medications, diet, or a motility disorder (a disorder where the movement of the large intestine is abnormal). Colon cancer can also cause constipation. (9)
For symptomatic treatment of constipation, a high-fiber diet with adequate amounts of water (64 ounces per day) can be beneficial. If this treatment fails, laxatives can be used.
If the constipation is due to an underlying disorder, treatment should be directed at the underlying disorder.
Diarrhea is defined as frequent, loose to watery stools. The causes of diarrhea are many including infection, autoimmune disease, medicines, hormonal imbalance, prior surgery, and motility disorders. (10) Diseases of the pancreas can also lead to diarrhea.
Symptomatic treatment of diarrhea includes using soluble fiber, antidiarrheal medications that slow the motility of the intestine, and bile-acid-binding agents. Ultimately, treatment should be directed at the underlying cause of diarrhea.
Gas is typically caused by the diet. Foods that commonly cause gas include lactose (dairy products), fructose, sorbitol, fruits, vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, onions, leeks, parsnips, celery, radishes, asparagus, cabbage, cucumber, potatoes, turnips, rutabaga), legumes (beans, peas, soybeans, lima beans), fatty foods, whole grains (11) (wheat, oats, bagels, wheat germ, pretzels, bran/bran cereal), and carbonated drinks.
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth can be associated with excessive intestinal gas and bloating and is usually diagnosed using the hydrogen/methane breath test.
Causes of Digestive Problems
There are many causes of digestive problems, which include primary diseases of the gastrointestinal tract such as diseases characterized by difficulty swallowing, malfunction of the salivary glands, abnormal motility of the stomach, autoimmune destruction of the lining of the small intestine and colon, pancreatic disease, and liver diseases.
External factors such as diet, medications, supplements, infection, and stress can also cause digestive problems. (12)
Symptoms of Digestive Problems
Symptoms of digestive distress include:
Symptoms of upper gastrointestinal problems include:
Symptoms of lower gastrointestinal tract disease include:
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
Home Remedies for Digestive Problems
- Consuming ginger can be effective in reducing nausea and vomiting. (15) It may also be beneficial for delayed emptying of the stomach and possibly difficulty swallowing due to abnormal motility of the esophagus. (16)
- Consuming probiotic foods can be beneficial for gut health.
- Consuming peppermint can be beneficial for patients with irritable bowel syndrome with constipation, bloating, gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. (17)
- Consuming fennel seeds can be advantageous for patients with irritable bowel syndrome with gas and bloating.
- Aloe vera may prove beneficial for patients with irritable bowel syndrome. It can alleviate constipation, bloating, and gas and may exhibit some anti-inflammatory effects. (18)
Precautions to Consider
A lifestyle with a healthy diet and exercise will help reduce the occurrence of common gastrointestinal problems. Here are a few measures you should adopt:
- Keep your stress levels under control.
- Quit smoking and limit your alcohol consumption.
- Consume a healthy, well-balanced, nutritious diet.
- Lose excess weight through exercise and diet, especially as you grow older.
When to See a Doctor
If lifestyle changes do not alleviate your digestive problem or if you experience associated weight loss, rectal bleeding, black stools, fever, chills, abdominal pain, or difficulty swallowing, seek medical attention starting with your primary care provider, who will refer you to a specialist if needed.
Advancing age can make you more prone to digestive disorders, but proactive measures from a young age can help minimize this risk. The best way to ensure smooth and easy digestion is by eating healthily and staying active.
If you do experience sudden changes in your digestive system, let your doctor know at the earliest. They will conduct the necessary investigation to identify the root cause of the problem and suggest the appropriate treatment.
The sooner you address the problem, the better. Delayed treatment can make the problem worse or persistent. Fortunately, most common digestive issues can easily be controlled through proper lifestyle changes and sometimes medication. However, if the problem is chronic or serious, you will require more advanced treatment.