According to medical literature, somewhere between 60 million and 70 million Americans suffer from gastrointestinal problems, leading to nearly 250,000 deaths each year. These conditions are responsible for close to 50 million hospital visits and 21.7 million hospital admissions annually, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. What’s more – treating and managing digestive diseases come with a staggering price tag of more than a $141.8 billion to the US healthcare system.
Gastrointestinal conditions are disorders of the digestive system, an extensive and complex system that breaks down food in order to extract minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients for the body’s use and remove unabsorbed waste. Also known as the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the digestive system comprises a range of vital digestive organs, including the mouth, large and small bowels, stomach, liver, esophagus, gallbladder, pancreas, rectum, and anus. Unfortunately, there are so many different gastrointestinal issues, so it is easy to mistakenly neglect them. Some GI problems are mild and usually go away on their own, but some conditions are serious enough that you have to see a physician or gastroenterologist.
Today, we are going to focus on the 13 most common digestive diseases — their symptoms, causes, and treatment options available. We’ll cover:
- Celiac Disease
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Chronic diarrhea
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
- Ulcerative colitis
- Crohn’s Disease
- Chronic Pancreatitis
- Liver Disease
- Peptic Ulcer Disease
- Lactose Intolerance
What Causes Gastrointestinal Conditions?
Common causes of gastrointestinal problems include:
A low fiber diet
Fiber, part of food plants that cannot be digested, is crucial when it comes to digestive health. It helps you feel full and aids in the digestion of certain foods.
The total daily recommended fiber intake is 25 grams and 38 grams for women and men under age 50 respectively. If you’re older than 50, you will need to consume around 21 grams (if you’re a woman) and 30 grams (if you’re a man).
A diet low in fiber is a perfect recipe for digestive problems. The good thing is that fiber is found aplenty in foods such as fruits, whole grains, legumes, beans, and vegetables.
Due to a genetic predisposition or environmental factors, some people cannot tolerate certain foods. Note, however, that food allergies are not the same as food intolerances.
Unlike a food allergy, which can cause respiratory issues, rashes, and a breakout of hives, a food intolerance only affects the digestive system. For instance, an intolerance to gluten (common proteins found in rye, barley, triticale, and wheat) can cause celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Food intolerance symptoms range from gassiness and bloating to diarrhea and heartburn.
Stress and anxiety don’t only affect your mental health; they can also take a toll on your digestive health, especially the gut microbiome.
Recent medical studies have shown that there is an established link between the GI and the brain. The two are always in communication, which is why the gut has more neurons than the whole spinal cord.
Being stressed has been found to cause a broad range of digestive issues that include: appetite loss, inflammation, bloating, cramping and changes in gut bacteria.
Not drinking enough water
Water is important to your digestive health because it helps cleanse the whole gastrointestinal tract. In particular, water softens the stool, helping prevent constipation.
More crucially, water is known to aid your digestive system by helping break down food, assisting the GI to absorb nutrients faster and more effectively. If you don’t drink enough water (8 glasses of liquid daily is recommended), you are inviting all sorts of digestive problems. This is particularly the case if you consume sugary drinks.
Eating a lot of dairy foods
These are usually loaded with fats and proteins that are difficult to digest. That’s why consuming large amounts of dairy products can cause bloating, gas, constipation, and abdominal cramps.
Also known as stomach flu, gastro-enteritis occurs when your gut experiences a viral, parasitic or bacterial infection. If rotavirus, cholera, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, etc. enter your GI, they can cause digestive disorders, ranging from ulcers to acute diarrhea.
Most immune and autoimmune gastrointestinal disorders have a genetic component, which means they are hereditary. You can be genetically predisposed to develop cystic fibrosis, ulcer colitis, type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and some liver conditions.
Not getting enough physical exercise is not good for your digestive health. That is why doctors recommend a combination of exercise, diet changes, and medication to remedy certain GI problems.
Age is another risk factor for gastrointestinal disorders. As we age, digestive glands decrease in activity, gut motility is affected, reflux becomes worse, and certain digestive conditions develop. In fact, the risk of developing cancers related to the digestive system increases with age.
These are but a few common causes of gastrointestinal disorders. Lifestyle choices, medication side effects, pregnancy, overusing laxatives, functional issues, inflammation, and systemic ailments may also play a role.
General Symptoms of Gastrointestinal Conditions
Symptoms of digestive disorders usually vary from condition to condition and person to person. However, some symptoms are present in nearly all gastrointestinal problems. For instance, you may experience abdominal discomfort, pain or cramps, weight loss or gain, incontinence, vomiting and nausea, acid reflux (heartburn), diarrhea, constipation, bloating, fatigue, loss of appetite, and difficulty swallowing. If you see blood in your stool, get in touch with your physician immediately. Other common symptoms of a potentially serious gastrointestinal condition include sudden weight loss and fever.
The best way to eliminate these symptoms is to get proper diagnosis and treatment.
Sometimes called sprue or gluten-sensitive enteropathy (GSE), celiac disease is a hereditary, gastrointestinal disorder caused by an autoimmune reaction to gluten. Gluten is a class of proteins found in grains such as barley, rye, wheat, and their hybrids. When a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, it triggers a negative immune reaction which destroys villi, small hair-like projections on the inner wall of the small bowel. When the villi are destroyed, the small intestine is unable to effectively absorb vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients from food. This results in malnutrition and can lead to a plethora of serious health problems, including infertility, permanent damage to the small bowel, and even ulcer colitis.
The prevalence of celiac disease in the US population is estimated to be around 1 percent. That means for every 100 Americans, one person has celiac disease.
Symptoms of celiac disease involve the digestive system, but they can also be seen in other areas of the body. Some people may not show symptoms at all. It’s worth noting, however, that adults and children often exhibit different symptoms. For example, celiac children may be smaller in stature, experience delayed puberty, and often feel irritable and tired. Digestive symptoms shown by children with celiac disease include awful-smelling stool, diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain, abdominal bloating, vomiting, and weight loss. Adults, on the other hand, can have both digestive and non-intestinal symptoms. On top of the usual gastrointestinal symptoms, they may have seizures, fatigue, joint pain, iron-deficiency, skin rashes, irregular menstruation, miscarriage, infertility, weak bones, and tooth discoloration.
Celiac disease has no known cure. Following a strict no-gluten diet is the only way to stop or even reduce these symptoms. Multivitamin supplementation and therapy may help complement this lifelong gluten-free diet.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Sometimes referred to as nervous stomach, irritable colon, mucous colitis or spastic colon, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a group of gastrointestinal conditions in which the muscles of the large instestine contract more frequently than normal. Contrary to common misconception, this condition is not the same as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), a set of digestive disorders that cause extended inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Irritable Bowel Syndrome affects 3-20 percent of the US population. Some of the risk factors include being stressed and consumption of certain medicines and foods. Women are more susceptible to IBS than men.
Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome vary in duration and frequency from one person to another. Some people have mild symptoms, while others experience substantial symptoms that can affect their quality of life. Common symptoms of IBS include abdominal bloating, excess gas, stomach cramps and pain, as well as alternating diarrhea and constipation. Most people also notice changes in bowel movement, including looser or harder stools that come more frequently than usual.
Treatment options for IBS include:
- Eating a diet with more fiber
- Avoiding stress, or learning ways to cope with stress
- Working with a dietician or gastroenterologist to figure out which foods trigger your IBS so that you can avoid them.
- Staying away from coffee and other sources of caffeine
Constipation is a digestive condition in which the person experiences hard, dry and often painful bowel movements. Constipation is one of the most common digestive disorder symptoms, and is estimated to affect approximately 2.5 million Americans.
This condition is typically caused by a low fiber diet, dehydration, certain meds, or anything that disrupts your normal diet/routine. When you’re constipated, you tend to strain when passing stool, sometimes causing hemorrhoids and anal fissures.
Some of the symptoms of constipation include abdominal bloating and pain, passing dry and hard stools, straining when going, rectal blockage, and having fewer than 3 bowel movements per week. In many cases, constipation can be treated by:
- Increased fiber and water intake
- Frequent exercise
- Not ignoring urges of bowel movements
If the constipation persists, you can use laxatives as a temporary relief. It’s worth keeping in mind that excessive use of laxatives can do more harm than good to your constipation.
Chronic diarrhea is a gastrointestinal condition in which the person passes watery, mushy or loose stools that lasts for weeks on end. In a 2018 study, researchers found that the prevalence of chronic diarrhea in the US is 6.6 percent. This means that for every 100 Americans, 6 to 7 suffer from the condition. Watery, loose stools that go on for more than 4 weeks is the main manifestation of chronic diarrhea. You may feel the urge to move bowels frequently. Other common symptoms include nausea, bloating and abdominal cramps. Your doctor can choose the best treatment option based on the underlying cause of diarrhea. It may include corticosteroid, antibiotics, pain killers, immunosuppressants, antidiarrheal, and other prescription medication. A diet and lifestyle change may also help reduce symptoms of chronic diarrhea. These can include reducing meal portions, drinking plenty of water, eating lower fiber foods, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is defined as having symptoms of acid reflux twice or more times a week. Acid reflux or heartburn occurs when stomach contents and acids spill over into your esophagus, causing a burning sensation and chest pain. This condition is sometimes called gastroesophageal reflux or acid regurgitation. Around 20 percent of Americans are affected by Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
If not treated early, frequent bouts of heartburn can damage the esophagus and lead to other serious health complications. GERD usually manifests itself as a dry cough, discomfort in the chest area, sore throat, swallowing difficulties, and sour taste in the mouth, just to mention a few symptoms.
You can treat GERD by:
● Taking over-the-counter antacids to treat heartburn
● Using proton pump inhibitors and H2 receptor blockers
If these medications don’t work, surgery to tighten the stomach muscles may be carried out. This is especially the case if lifestyle changes and medication haven’t gotten rid of the symptoms.
Ulcerative colitis is one of the two most common inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD); Crohn’s disease (more on this condition ahead) being the other one. This diagnosis refers to a group of digestive disorders that cause inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Ulcerative colitis is caused by the inflammation of the inner lining of the colon (large intestine), rectum or both. Ulcers or small sores start to develop, typically starting in the rectum and spreading to the large intestine. It is estimated that about 750,000 people in the United States have ulcerative colitis, which is frequently diagnosed in individuals aged between 15 and 35. Genetic predisposition, the presence of other immune disorders, and environmental factors such as antigens, viruses, and bacteria may increase your chances of developing ulcerative colitis.
The most common symptoms of the condition include fever, diarrhea, malnutrition, weight loss, bloodstains in stool, stomach pain, and frequent abdominal sounds. People with UC may also exhibit other symptoms that include inflamed eyes, mouth sores, skin issues, loss of appetite, swelling in the joints, and joint pain. The best course of treatment is usually prescription meds such as mesalamine, sulfasalazine, balsalazide or olsalazine to help reduce swelling and inflammation.
The doctor may also prescribe antibiotics, corticosteroids, and other drugs that may aid in suppressing immune function. Or, biologic medications that help block inflammation.
Gallstones are what they sound like — stone-like lumps that develop in the bile ducts or gallbladder. They can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. The gallbladder is a small digestive organ located in the right upper abdomen. Its job is to produce, store and release bile, a yellowish-green fluid that aids in the digestion of fat. This condition is fairly common in the US, affecting 10-15 percent of the general population. Even though the exact cause is not well known, gallstones usually form when bile has a high concentration of bilirubin and cholesterol.
Gallstones may show no symptoms, although most people experience pain in the upper right abdomen, especially when they consume fatty foods. Other symptoms of gallstones include indigestion, diarrhea, burping, abdominal pain, dark urine, vomiting, nausea, and clay-colored stool. People with mild symptoms may not need treatment. Depending on symptoms, surgery may be recommended to get rid of the gallstones. About 250,000 Americans diagnosed with gallstones undergo surgery each year.
Endoscopy is usually chosen if the gallstones are lodged in the bile ducts.
Crohn’s disease is a chronic digestive disease in which the ileum (the lower side of the small bowel) becomes ulcerated and inflamed. Along with ulcerative colitis, this condition is part of a larger group of gastrointestinal disorders called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Although the inflammation primarily affects the ileum, ulceration can also occur in any area of the small intestine, colon, esophagus, or stomach. Crohn’s disease is quite rampant in those aged between 15 and 30, although it can develop at any age. According to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, around 780,000 individuals in the U.S. have Crohn’s disease.
As with any IBD, Crohn’s disease manifests itself gradually; some symptoms usually get worse as the condition progresses. In the early stages of the condition, you may experience fever, weight loss, reduced appetite, fatigue, bloody stools, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. You may also feel like going frequently. Potentially serious symptoms appear much later. These can include: ulcers, skin inflammation, perianal fistulas, and shortness of breath as a result of anemia.
Early screening and diagnosing can make a huge difference so you can start treatment. Talking of treatment, your options are three-pronged:
- Medication – You may need to take medications such as antidiarrheal drugs, anti-inflammatory drugs, immunomodulators, antibiotics, and biologics to block inflammation.
- Change in diet – Your doctor, dietician or gastroenterologist can suggest the best diet changes to prevent Crohn’s flare-ups.
- Surgery – This is a last-resort treatment option if lifestyle changes and medications don’t work. However, three-quarters of people with Crohn’s disease usually undergo elective surgery at one point or the other.
Chronic pancreatitis is a progressive condition characterized by an inflamed pancreas that doesn’t heal and gets worse over time. Ultimately, the inflammation renders the pancreas unable to produce digestive hormones. Unlike acute pancreatitis which lasts for a short time, chronic pancreatitis occurs gradually and the inflammation doesn’t improve over months or even years. The rate of incidence of chronic pancreatitis in the US is 50 for every 100,000 people in the general population.
Because the condition is progressive, the patient might not notice any symptoms of chronic pancreatitis. When they do appear, symptoms may include diarrhea, fatty, loose pale stool, upper abdominal pain, vomiting and nausea, shortness of breath, sudden weight loss, and excessive fatigue and thirst. As the disease becomes very advanced, more serious symptoms may appear, including intestinal blockage, internal bleeding, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), and much more.
Treatment options include
- Medication – The doctor may prescribe a blend of medications that include artificial digestive enzymes, steroids, insulin, and pain medications.
- Surgery – Although it is rare, surgery may be recommended if you have serious pain that doesn’t respond to medication.
- Endoscopy – An endoscope is a tiny, long tube used to clear blockages and relieve pain associated with CP.
Diverticulitis is a serious type of diverticular disease, a set of conditions that affect the digestive system. Diverticulosis is another type of diverticular disease. Diverticulosis is characterized by the formation of small pockets or pouches called diverticula in the lower part of the inner lining of the colon (the large intestine). One or several of these small pouches (diverticula) can become inflamed, swollen with waste and get infected, causing diverticulitis. This can lead to a range of mild to serious complications, including rectal bleeding. Diverticulitis occurs in severe or advanced diverticular disease.
Potential symptoms include fever and chills, nausea and vomiting, painful abdominal cramps, bloody stool, and rectal bleeding.
Diverticulitis can be treated in several ways, including:
- Changes in diet – Your physician may get you on a liquid-only diet before weaning in low-fiber foods after several days.
- Medication – You could be prescribed OTC pain medication for discomfort, as well as antibiotics if you have got an infection
- Surgery – This rare option is recommended if your diverticulitis cannot be treated through medication and dietary changes. These may include needle drainage, bowel resection with colostomy or anastomosis.
The liver is the second largest organ and plays a varied role in digestion, including breaking down of food, storing energy, and getting rid of waste and toxins from the bloodstream. Liver disease is a collective term for all digestive conditions that affect the liver. While the causes may be different, they can all destroy your liver and affect its function. According to statistics from the CDC, 1.8 percent of US adults have been diagnosed with liver disease, which translates to about 4.5 million Americans.
Symptoms of liver disease can vary from one person to another, depending on the cause. Some general symptoms may include: itchy skin, persistent fatigue, vomiting, nausea, swollen abdomen, legs or ankles, dark urine, jaundice, loss of appetite, and black or bloody stool.
Lifestyle changes are usually recommended for liver disease. These may include keeping a healthy weight, reducing/avoiding alcohol, drinking plenty of water, and embracing a liver-friendly diet. Depending on the underlying cause, the doctor might prescribe medications such as antibiotics, blood pressure drugs, steroids, antiviral drugs, and multivitamins. On rare occasions, you may need surgery to remove diseased parts of the liver. A liver transplant may be necessary if no other treatment option is viable.
Peptic Ulcer Disease
Peptic Ulcer Disease (PUD) is a gastrointestinal condition in which ulcers or painful sores develop in the inner lining of the stomach and duodenum (the first portion of the small intestine). The stomach lining is usually protected from corrosion by digestive juices by a thick mucus layer. Peptic ulcers occur when this protective layer is reduced. Several factors can cause a reduction in the mucus layer, including infection, long-term use of certain medications and aging.
PUD affects approximately 4.5 million Americans, translating to a prevalence of around 1.4 percent.
Mild symptoms of PUD include acid reflux, vomiting or nausea, bloating, and burning sensations in the upper abdomen. In a serious case of peptic ulcer disease, you may experience heavy vomiting, severe pain in the upper stomach, black stool, and weight loss.
A healthful diet and prescription drugs can help treat most peptic ulcers. Depending on the underlying cause, you may be prescribed proton pump inhibitors, antibiotics, probiotics or H2 receptor blockers. In rare cases, however, the doctor may recommend surgical removal of the ulcers.
Lactose intolerance is a disorder in which a person is unable to digest lactose, a simple carbohydrate present in milk and other dairy products. This is due to low levels of an enzyme called lactase that is responsible for digesting lactose. Lactose intolerance is a very common condition; it is estimated to affect about 75 percent of the American population. Symptoms can range from mild to distressing and are experienced when dairy products are consumed. Lactose intolerance can lead to an array of serious digestive problems. Diarrhea, gas, abdominal cramps and bloating are the most common symptoms, but some patients may experience pain in the lower abdomen, vomiting, nausea, and occasional constipation. Some treatments for lactose intolerance include enzyme supplements to help break down lactose; lactose exposure to acclimatize the body to the carbohydrate; and an assortment of prebiotics and probiotics.
The gastrointestinal tract is a large organ system that performs numerous tasks including the breakdown of food, absorption of nutrients, and removal of waste.
A gastrointestinal disorder is any condition that affects the digestive system. It is estimated that these conditions affect 60-70 million people in the US alone, leading to a quarter of a million deaths annually.
Whereas symptoms vary depending on the condition and underlying causes, most gastrointestinal diseases share common symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, bloating, stomach pain, and excess gas.
To recap, the most common digestive conditions include:
Celiac disease – This is an autoimmune digestive disorder in which the body launches an immune reaction to gluten. While the exact cause isn’t known, genetics and the presence of other autoimmune disorders play a role in celiac disease development.
Constipation – This is a very common digestive problem affecting more than 2.5 million individuals in the US. A constipated person has difficulty moving bowels because of a dry, hard stool.
Chronic diarrhea – This is a condition in which a person passes watery or loose stools for four or more weeks. This persistent diarrhea can cause severe dehydration and other serious digestion problems.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) – This is characterized by persistent bouts of acid reflux or heartburn which can slowly damage the esophagus. A person with GERD experiences acid reflux symptoms at least twice per week. It affects about 20 percent of the US population.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome – IBS is a set of intestinal symptoms that occur concurrently, causing intestinal damage. Symptoms may include diarrhea, constipation, bloating, pain in the abdomen and cramping. It affects 3-20 percent of Americans.
Ulcerative colitis – This is an inflammatory bowel disease that involves inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. In UC, the wall of the colon is affected by inflammation, abdominal pain, malnutrition, fever, diarrhea, bloody stool, and a rumbling stomach.
Crohn’s disease – This is another common IBD. Unlike ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease causes inflammation of the small bowel and part of the large intestine. The condition affects close to 800,000 people in the United States.
Gallstones – These are stone-like solids that form in the bile-storing gallbladder when there is a high concentration of bilirubin and cholesterol. Common symptoms include indigestion, burping, dark urine, nausea, clay-like stools, diarrhea, and other biliary colic symptoms.
Chronic pancreatitis – this is a chronic or long-standing inflammation of the pancreas, an organ that helps produce most of the digestive juices. With a malfunctioning pancreas, the body cannot properly digest food. More than two-thirds of chronic pancreatitis cases are alcohol-related.
Diverticulitis – This condition occurs when one or several diverticula (small pouches or pockets that sprout on the GI lining due to diverticulosis) get inflamed and infected. While common symptoms like constipation, diarrhea and bloating are mild, advanced diverticulitis can lead to rectal bleeding and other severe digestive complications.
Liver disease – this refers to all diseases, complications, and illnesses that can affect the liver, including liver cirrhosis. Common symptoms include pale stools, dark urine, jaundice (or yellowing of eyes and skin), appetite loss, nausea, and vomiting. Treatment options vary depending on the underlying cause.
Peptic ulcer disease – Peptic ulcers form when sores develop on the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. Changes in appetite, vomiting, chest pain, indigestion, drastic weight loss, and bloody stools are some of the symptoms of PUD.
Lactose intolerance – This condition occurs when someone is intolerant to carbohydrates called lactose that is found mainly in milk and processed dairy products. This is caused by a lack of lactase which normally digests lactose.