There’s something about digestive difficulties that makes them hard to discuss in polite company, leaving many people to suffer in silence. According to professionals, digestive disorders are placing a growing burden on Americans, causing an unprecedented number of clinic visits and hospitalizations. Yet fixes can often be as simple as making informed lifestyle changes or taking over-the-counter remedies. A 2008 British Medical Journal study suggests that peppermint oil and soluble fiber should be a first line defense against irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Here’s a list of the three most common gastrointestinal problems and the latest medical advice to cope with them.
1. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) – More than 30 million Americans have been diagnosed with GERD. The most common symptom is heartburn that climbs from the stomach to the throat or middle of the chest.
GERD occurs when a one-way valve known as the lower esophageal sphincter doesn’t close correctly, allowing digestive juices plus stomach contents to travel up the esophagus. The condition even affects infants. Doctors sometimes need to perform an endoscopic exam to diagnose it.
Untreated GERD can lead to more serious conditions. Treatment consists primarily of dietary changes, over-the-counter antacids or reflux drugs, and/or prescription medications.
2. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) – IBS primarily affects patients between ages 35 and 50, according to the National Institutes of Health. It strikes 1 out of every 5 women, and around 1 in 10 men.
While not dangerous, it causes significant pain/cramping. Both diarrhea and constipation are common. Less common are excessive gas, feeling overly full, and mucus discharge.
Doctors diagnose IBS after ruling out other conditions like food intolerance. The illness affects how food moves through the large intestine and is characterized by periodic flares. Finding an effective treatment is difficult because no cause has been pinpointed. Some doctors advise patients to eat more fiber, take anti-cramping medications, and avoid stress.
3. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) – Unlike IBS, with which it’s often confused, IBD is an umbrella for some serious digestive illnesses. The main disorders are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. They affect around 1.4 million Americans, according to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America.
Researchers have found no specific cause of IBD but suspect a combination of a faulty immune system, genetics, and environmental factors. While Crohn’s occurs anywhere in the digestive tract and is incurable, ulcerative colitis develops only in the colon and is cured by removing it.
Major symptoms of both illnesses include:
- Rectal bleeding
- Abdominal pain and cramping
- Urgency to move bowels
Diagnostic tools include blood tests and radiographic studies. Treatment includes medications ranging from anti-inflammatory drugs to immunosuppressants, dietary changes to reduce symptoms, and surgery. Neither stress nor a specific food causes IBD.
Digestive diseases can interfere with the daily lives of people. Some people may put up with the often painful and uncomfortable symptoms, but treatment is available for digestive disorders and to provide relief so people can live relatively normal lives. Some of the diseases may lead to serious damage to the digestive tract if left untreated, so consult your physician if you are experiencing digestive difficulties.