While the occasional stomach ache, bloating, or gas is usually nothing to worry about, persistent symptoms could be a sign of a more serious underlying digestive condition. Awareness of such possible conditions can be the first step to healing, so in that vein, this article will cover 6 of the most common digestive ailments. If you suspect you might have one of these conditions, it may be a good idea to seek professional medical advice.
1. IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)
IBS is a very common digestive disorder and affects up to 11% of the global population . Symptoms can include abdominal pain or cramping, gas, bloating, and constipation or diarrhea (or both).
Though the specific cause of IBS is not known, there are common triggers that may worsen symptoms, such stress or dietary patterns. This means that, although IBS is typically a chronic condition, symptoms can often be managed (and reduced!) through proper management of triggers. For example, many people living with IBS experience great improvement following the low-FODMAP diet.
2. IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease)
Not to be confused with IBS, IBD is an umbrella term for various bowel disorders that cause chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the two main types of IBD. Like IBS, the precise cause of IBD remains unknown.
Although IBD shares some symptoms with IBS, IBD can cause permanent intestinal damage and can also increase the risk of colon cancer, which is why it’s very important to get an accurate diagnosis. One differentiating factor between IBD and IBS is that IBD can be seen during diagnostic imaging, while IBS typically cannot .
3. Constipation & Chronic Constipation
Constipation is generally defined as having fewer than 3 bowel movements per week , although normal bowel movement patterns vary from individual to individual and should also be taken into account. Symptoms may include difficulty or pain passing stools, dry, hard or lumpy stools, or feeling that bowels have not completely emptied after a movement.
Constipation is considered chronic when symptoms are persistently experienced for at least 3 months. Although constipation can itself be a symptom of another medical condition, there are common lifestyle factors that can exacerbate symptoms, such as dehydration, inadequate fibre consumption, or stress. Read more here.
4. Diarrhea & Chronic Diarrhea
Occasional diarrhea (loose, watery stools) lasting only a few days is usually not a cause for serious concern. However, experiencing diarrhea persistently for weeks or longer typically indicates an underlying problem, such as lactose intolerance, a food (such as gluten) sensitivity, IBS, IBD, or a persistent infection .
It’s important to get medical attention immediately if diarrhea is accompanied by bloody or black stools, severe pain, or a high fever. For milder symptoms, or when experiencing diarrhea as a symptom of IBS, it may help to consume more soluble fibre. Soluble fibre, such as the type found in Alpinia’s Acazen, both increases beneficial bacteria in the gut and slows down digestion. Insoluble fibre, on the other hand, adds bulk to the stool and speeds up digestion (helpful for constipation!), so it should be avoided when experiencing diarrhea . Learn more about soluble vs insoluble fibre.
5. Celiac Disease / Gluten Sensitivity
A serious autoimmune condition, celiac disease is when consuming gluten causes damage to the small intestine. Gluten sometimes unfairly gets a bad rap, as most people can consume gluten safely without any ill effects . But, avoiding gluten is crucial for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Although celiac disease is hereditary, the good news is that it can be very successfully managed by adhering to a strictly gluten-free diet . Avoiding gluten is the only way to prevent further damage to the small intestine and allow it to heal.
6. Lactose Intolerance
Affecting up to 65% of people worldwide , lactose intolerance is a digestive disorder caused by the inability to properly digest lactose, the main carbohydrate in milk and other dairy products. Interestingly, ethnicity is a risk factor, with Asian and African populations being typically much more affected than European populations .
Lactose intolerance typically worsens with age, and usual symptoms include abdominal cramps, bloating, and diarrhea after consuming foods containing lactose. Depending on the severity of the condition, dairy products may need to be completely avoided, although many people with lactose intolerance can tolerate small amounts of dairy .
Because many gastrointestinal disorders share symptoms, understanding the causes of and differences between the disorders can be helpful in pinpointing the source of discomfort. That being said, there is no replacement for professional medical advice, so make sure to go for a checkup if you experience any prolonged or unexplained symptoms!