13 Most Common Gastrointestinal Conditions and What to Do About Them
Do not ignore frequently occurring gastrointestinal symptoms like pain in the abdomen, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, weight loss, and excess gas, as they are not only irritating but also end up embarrassing you at times. They can also turn out to be dangerous and affect your health and quality of life if you are not careful. Visit an experienced and board-certified physician at the Century Medical and Dental Center in case of any persisting or alarming symptoms to improve your gut health and enjoy a better quality of life. The top family medicine doctors in NYC use the most advanced testing methods and up-to-date research methods to diagnose your condition and come up with positive solutions to relieve your symptoms.
Gastrointestinal conditions are disorders of the digestive system, an extensive and complex system. It works hard to break down food to absorb water and extract nutrients, minerals, and vitamins for the body while removing unabsorbed waste. Any disease or disorder of the gastrointestinal tract or digestive system can result in painful and irritating symptoms that not only affect your health but other areas of life too.
Persistent or frequently occurring gastrointestinal disorders of the digestive system can make it hard for you to enjoy the foods you love and focus on your routine life.
Also known as the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the digestive system comprises a range of vital digestive organs, including:
- The mouth;
- Esophagus (the “feeding pipe”);
- Small and large bowels;
- Rectum and anus;
- The GI tract also includes connected organs such as the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas.
General Symptoms That Indicate a Gastrointestinal Condition
Symptoms of digestive disorders vary from person to person and their situation. But some general symptoms are common to most gastrointestinal problems. They include:
- Abdominal discomfort such as bloating, pain, or cramps;
- Unintentional weight loss;
- Vomiting and nausea;
- Acid reflux (heartburn);
- Fecal incontinence;
- Loss of appetite;
- Difficulty swallowing.
If you see blood in your stool or vomit, contact your physician immediately, as it might be something more critical than a gastrointestinal issue. Only an experienced and certified physician can accurately diagnose your symptoms and treat the problem you are going through.
Causes of Gastrointestinal Conditions
Before trying to treat these gastrointestinal problems, we must know what causes gastrointestinal conditions. Some common causes of gastrointestinal problems include:
A low fiber diet
Fiber is essential for digestive health. It helps to feel full and digest certain foods. When we talk about gut health or microbiome health, fiber has a very significant role to play. Fibers are beneficial for trillions of good bacterial or microbiota that live in our large intestine and provide numerous benefits.
The total daily recommended fiber intake is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men under 50. If you are older than 50, you should consume slightly less, around 21 grams for women and 30 grams for men. It is easy to incorporate fiber in our diet as it is available in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and beans.
A diet low in fiber can effectively reduce bloating and solve digestive problems such as constipation, abdominal pain, and even the onset of colon cancer.
Stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety do not only affect your mental health. They also take a toll on your digestive health, particularly gut microbiota. Recent studies have revealed that there is a strong link between the GI tract and the brain. They are always in bi-directional communication, sending messages to each other. It is the reason our gut has more neurons than the whole spinal cord.
Stress and anxiety can cause a wide range of digestive issues, including:
- Loss of appetite;
Lack of hydration
Adequate amounts of water are necessary for digestive health as it helps to cleanse the gastrointestinal tract. Water also softens the stools and prevents constipation. It also aids the digestive system by breaking down food and assisting the GI in absorbing nutrients faster and more efficiently. Not drinking water can lead to various digestive issues.
Health experts recommend taking at least 8 glasses of water a day. You can also increase your water intake by drinking unsweetened tea, coffee, or even sparkling water. Sodas and other surgery drinks do not provide hydration.
Consuming too much dairy foods
Milk and cheese, and other dairy foods are loaded with fats and proteins that are often hard for the body to digest. Medical evidence also suggests that dairy products have a pro-inflammatory effect, and consuming large amounts of dairy foods can lead to bloating, gas, constipation, and abdominal cramps.
Lack of physical exercise is bad for digestive as well as overall health. Doctors recommend a combination of exercise and diet changes to deal with specific GI problems. Avoiding foods that lead to inflammation and increasing intake of foods that fight inflammation plays a crucial role in managing gastrointestinal conditions.
Many people go through gastrointestinal problems at an advanced age. It is unavoidable as everyone has to grow old. With age, the activity of digestive glands decreases. It affects gut mobility and reflux and leads to certain digestive disorders. The risk of developing cancers related to the digestive system can also increase with age.
Heredity is an unavoidable factor as many immune and autoimmune GI disorders have a genetic component, and you may end up with some digestive problems. The good thing is that while your genes have a role to play, other factors like lifestyle changes and environment can make a difference and you can avoid gastrointestinal disorders.
Predisposed genetic conditions include ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and some liver conditions. There are many other factors, such as side effects of medication, pregnancy, overuse of laxatives, functional issues, inflammation, and systemic ailments that can lead to digestive problems along with the common causes.
The 13 most common gastrointestinal conditions
The most common gastrointestinal conditions, as identified by the physicians, include:
- Celiac Disease;
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS);
- Lactose Intolerance;
- Chronic Diarrhea;
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD);
- Peptic Ulcer Disease;
- Crohn’s Disease;
- Ulcerative Colitis;
- Acute and Chronic Pancreatitis;
- Liver Disease;
Gastrointestinal Disorders – Their Symptoms & Treatment
1. Celiac disease
It is a multifactorial gastrointestinal disorder. It has a genetic basis but, it can get triggered by environmental factors and affect the digestive system. It results from an autoimmune reaction to gluten-proteins found in grains, such as barley, rye, wheat, and their hybrids. When someone with celiac disease consumes gluten, it triggers an immune reaction that destroys villi, small hair-like projections on the lining of the small bowel.
When the villi get destroyed, the small intestine is unable to effectively absorb nutrients, vitamins, and minerals from food. It can result in malnutrition and lead to many serious health problems, including infertility, permanent damage to the small bowel, and even the big “c” – intestinal lymphoma.
Symptoms of celiac disease involve the digestive system, but they can also affect other parts of the body. Some people may not show warning signs at all. Symptoms include:
- Bad smelling stool;
- Diarrhea or constipation;
- Stomach pain;
- Abdominal bloating;
- Weight loss;
Symptoms that affect other parts of the body include:
- Joint pain;
- Iron deficiency;
- Hair loss;
- Irregular menstruation;
- Miscarriage or infertility;
- Weak bones;
- Tooth discoloration;
Celia disease has no known cure. Only following a strict gluten-free diet can help to reduce the symptoms and keep the condition in check. Multivitamin supplementation may help to live a better gluten-free diet.
Consulting a doctor is very important to have your condition accurately diagnosed. Getting tested and screened for celiac disease will help the doctor determine your symptoms and provide the best help to manage your condition and live a better quality of life.
2. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
This condition is often referred to as a nervous stomach, irritable colon, mucous colitis, or spastic colon. IBS is a group of gastrointestinal problems that cause a combination of frequent abdominal pain, bloating, and cramps associated with either diarrhea or constipation. It can be caused by a variety of factors, including irritated gut microbiota. It does not result from any underlying inflammation, chemical or anatomical abnormalities.
Risk factors of IBS include stress and consumption of certain medicines and foods.
Symptoms of IBS vary in duration and frequency from one person to another. Some people experience mild symptoms, while others end up with symptoms that affect the quality of their life. They include:
- Excess gas;
- Change in bowel habits such as harder, looser, or more urgent stools than normal;
- Alternating constipation and diarrhea.
Treatment options for IBS depend on the type of disorder and severity of symptoms. The doctor may recommend making lifestyle changes and making choices depending on your condition. They include:
- Eating more or less fiber;
- Avoiding stress;
- Taking probiotics.
The doctor may suggest eliminating FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) from your diet. Carbohydrates found in many vegetables are not well absorbed in the small intestine. They end up taking in water and ferment in the colon, which leads to digestive problems.
3. Lactose intolerance
People with lactose intolerance cannot fully digest lactose, a simple carbohydrate present in the mammal’s milk and its derivatives. It is because of low levels of an enzyme called lactase that is responsible for digesting lactose. Lactose intolerance is a common condition that affects a majority of the population.
Lactose tolerance symptoms
Mild to distressing symptoms of lactose tolerance can result from consuming dairy. They vary among people due to the various levels of lactase present in the intestine and the amount of lactose consumed. They include:
- Abdominal cramps
Lactose intolerance can be treated with enzyme supplements that help to break down lactose. Replacing regular milk with lactose-free or dairy-free milk can prevent this condition. Learning the difference between lactose intolerance, milk allergy, and dairy sensitivity is necessary for correctly diagnosing and treating the symptoms.
4. Chronic diarrhea
It is a gastrointestinal condition that causes watery, mushy, or loose stools that lasts for more than 4 weeks. High intake of sugar, being overweight, depressed, older age, and being a woman can intensify the symptoms.
Sometimes chronic diarrhea can also result from several disorders that must be identified for proper treatment, including celiac disease, food intolerances and allergy, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, and IBS. Intestinal infections such as C. difficile, Cryptosporidium, Giardia can also lead to chronic diarrhea.
The doctor will recommend the best treatment depending on the underlying cause of diarrhea. Steroids, antibiotics, pain killers, immunosuppressants, antidiarrheal, and other prescription medications are recommended to control the disorder. Lifestyle changes and modifications can also help in managing the symptoms.
It is a commonly experienced digestive problem that causes hard, dry, and even painful bowel movement that occurs less frequently than normal. People suffering from constipation report fewer than three bowel movements a week which is not a healthy sign.
Low fiber diet, little or no physical activity, dehydration, use of certain medications including sedatives and antidepressants, or anything that disrupts normal routine and diet are known causes of constipation. It may also result from anatomical or inflammatory conditions in some cases.
Long-term constipation can lead to hemorrhoids and anal fissures.
Constipation can be treated by increasing intake of fiber, better hydration, frequent exercise, and addressing the urge of bowel movement timely. If lifestyle and diet changes do not work, the doctor may recommend laxatives to get rid of constipation.
6. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
Symptoms of acid reflux twice or more times a week indicate GERD. Acid reflux or heartburn occurs when stomach contents and acids spill over into the esophagus, causing a burning sensation and chest pain. This condition is sometimes also called acid regurgitation.
Timely treatment of GERD is essential as frequent bouts of heartburn can damage the esophagus and lead to esophagitis, esophageal narrowing. It can also result in serious health complications, including a precancerous lesion called Barrett’s esophagus.
Symptoms of GERD include:
- Dry cough;
- Discomfort in the chest area;
- Sore throat;
- Difficulty in swallowing;
- Sour taste in the back of the mouth.
GERD can be treated successfully by taking over-the-counter medications for heartburn. Lifestyle changes can also help to keep away GERD. Reducing obesity and avoiding acid-stimulating foods such as caffeine, alcohol, fried and fatty foods, and tomato sauces can prevent heartburn. It is essential to eat food at least two hours before going to bed to avoid reflux.
In severe cases, the doctors may recommend H2 receptor blockers (such as Famotidine and others) or proton pump inhibitors (such as Omeprazole and others).
7. Peptic ulcer disease
Commonly known as PUD, peptic ulcer disease is a gastrointestinal condition. It is caused by infection of a microorganism called Helicobacter pylori, in which ulcers or open sores develop in the inner lining of the stomach and duodenum. A thick mucus layer protects the stomach lining from corrosion by digestive juices, but when this protective layer is damaged, it results in peptic ulcers.
Several factors can damage or reduce the mucus layer, including the presence of H.pylori bacteria in the intestine, overdrinking and long-term usage of certain medications along with old age.
Peptic ulcer disease can result in mild to severe symptoms. They include:
- Acid reflux;
- Vomiting or blood-tinged vomit in severe cases;
- Burning sensations in the upper abdomen;
- Severe pain in the abdomen;
- Tarry-black stool;
- Weight loss.
Peptic ulcers can be treated by making healthy changes to diet and prescription drugs. Depending on the severity of the problem, the doctor may prescribe proton pump inhibitors, antibiotics, probiotics, or H2 receptor blockers. Surgical removal of ulcers may be necessary when medications and lifestyle changes do not work.
8. Crohn’s disease
It is a chronic inflammatory digestive disease that can affect any part of the GI tract, from the mouth to the anus. It most commonly involves the ileum (the lower side of the small bowel) and leads to ulcers and inflammation. This condition is part of a group of gastrointestinal disorders called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Ulcers can also occur in other areas of the small intestine, colon, esophagus, or stomach. Crohn’s disease can develop at any age, but people between the ages 15 and 30 are more likely to suffer from it.
Symptoms of Crohn’s disease worse as the condition advanced. Symptoms may include:
- Weight loss;
- Reduced appetite;
- Bloody stools;
- Abdominal cramps;
- Skin inflammation;
- Perianal fistula;
- Shortness of breath.
Early detection and screening can play a significant role ineffective treatment. The doctor will recommend treatment after determining the condition and its severity. A diet with a low impact on areas of the intestine can prevent inflammation and control the symptoms of Crohn’s disease.
Antidiarrheal drugs, anti-inflammatory drugs, immunomodulators, antibiotics, and biologics are recommended to block inflammation. If medication, diet, and lifestyle changes do not work, surgery is the last resort for treating the ulcerations.
9. Ulcerative colitis
It is one of the most common inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) along with Crohn’s disease. It refers to a group of digestive disorders that result in inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Ulcerative colitis is caused by the inflammation of the inner lining of the colon (large intestine), rectum, or both. Heredity weakened immunity, and environmental factors such as antigens, viruses, and bacteria increase the chances of developing ulcerative colitis.
Ulcers or small sores begin to develop, usually in the rectum that spread to the large intestine. Other symptoms include:
- Diarrhea often with bloodstains in stool;
- Weight loss;
- Stomach pain;
- Frequent abdominal sounds.
Many people report inflamed eyes, mouth sores, skin issues, loss of appetite, swelling in the joints, and joint pain with typical symptoms.
Treatment of ulcerative colitis depends on the severity of the condition and other factors. Medications include mesalamine, sulfasalazine, balsalazide, or olsalazine. In some cases, steroids may be prescribed to keep down the swelling and inflammation.
Antibiotics also help in suppressing immune functions, or biologic medications that help block inflammation. Treating this condition takes a long time, and in some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove all or some parts of the colon and rectum to provide relief.
The gallbladder is a small digestive organ located in the right upper abdomen. It produces, stores, and releases bile, a yellowish-green fluid that helps in fat absorption. Gallstones are stone-like lumps that develop in the bile ducts or gallbladders. They can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball.
The exact causes of gallstones are not known. They are believed to form due to the high concentration of bilirubin and cholesterol in the bile. Ultrasound and endoscopy help to detect the presence of stones in the gallbladder.
- Pain in the upper right abdomen, especially after eating fatty foods;
- Dark urine;
- Clay-colored stool.
Surgery is the most effective way to get rid of gallstones depending on the symptoms and level of pain they are causing. There have been cases where people experienced no symptoms. In such cases, no treatment is required.
11. Acute and chronic pancreatitis
Inflammation of the pancreas is the most common pancreatic disorder that results from increased obesity and gallstones. The acute form of inflammation of the pancreas, a J-shaped organ that secretes digestive enzymes and hormones, can appear suddenly and last for days. Mild cases of acute pancreatitis can be managed without any treatment, but severe cases can result in life-threatening complications.
Chronic pancreatitis does not occur frequently, but it comes with potentially severe complications, including pancreatic cancer that results in death. Alcoholism, cigarette smoking, obesity, and abdominal injury are common causes of pancreatitis that can be controlled. Other causes such as gallstones, cystic fibrosis, and other rare genetic disorders, hypertriglyceridemia (very high triglycerides), and infections need medical attention as they can are serious.
Symptoms of acute and chronic pancreatitis include:
- Abdominal pain that extends to the back;
- Stabbing back pain that intensifies after eating;
- Nausea and vomiting.
Acute pancreatitis can result in grave complications, including pseudocyst (pockets of fluid in the pancreas) that can rupture, necrotizing pancreatitis (pancreatic cells dying), diabetes, kidney failure.
Treatment of acute and chronic pancreatitis depends on the underlying causes and the symptoms that the patient experiences. Doctors use blood testing and imaging to check the levels of pancreatic enzymes before starting the treatment.
12. Liver disease
The liver is the second largest organ of the body. It plays a crucial role in digestion, including breaking down food, storing energy, and eliminating waste and toxins from the bloodstream. Liver disease is a collective term for the digestive conditions that affect the heart.
There are different causes of liver diseases, but they end up damaging your liver and affecting its function. Liver diseases can be accurately diagnosed with a blood test or with the help of imaging tests like CT or MRI.
Liver disease symptoms
Symptoms of liver diseases vary from person to person, depending on what is causing the condition. General symptoms include:
- Itchy skin;
- Persistent fatigue;
- Swollen abdomen, legs, or ankles;
- Dark urine;
- Loss of appetite;
- Black or bloody stool.
Doctors recommend lifestyle chances to treat liver disease. They can include:
- Reducing the intake of alcohol or avoiding it completely;
- Maintaining a healthy weight to prevent liver inflammation;
- Drinking lots of water;
- Eating a low-fat, liver-friendly diet.
Medications to treat underlying causes of liver problems include antibiotics, blood pressure drugs, steroids, antiviral drugs, and multivitamins. In severe cases, diseased parts of the liver may have to be removed surgically, or a liver transplant may be needed if no other treatment works.
The condition, 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). Diverticulitis refers to the inflammation of these pockets that become swollen with waste and get infected. It can result in serious complications such as rectal bleeding. Diverticulitis occurs in severe or advanced diverticulosis.
Symptoms of diverticulitis include:
- Fever and chills;
- Nausea and vomiting;
- Painful abdominal cramps;
- Bloody stool;
- Rectal bleeding.
Treatment options for diverticulitis include:
- Changes in the diet;
- Over the counter medication to manage the pain and discomfort;
- Antibiotics to fight the infection;
- Surgery in case diverticulitis cannot be treated with medication and dietary changes.
With so many different gastrointestinal issues, diagnosing your problem and addressing it the right way could be a challenge. While some GI problems are mild and go away on their own, others are serious and need prompt medical attention to avoid complications.
Schedule an appointment with a primary care physician at the Century Medical and Dental Center to have your condition identified and seek the best treatment. The expert family practice doctor can help you prevent or minimize the diseases of the colon and rectum by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, practicing good bowel habits, and getting regularly screened for your symptoms.