“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”
Before I became a dietitian, I didn’t realize just how many people suffer from digestive issues. Now that digestion and bowel movements are two of my favorite topics of conversation (yes, for real!), it seems like almost every encounter I have results in the other person telling me how eating causes them discomfort or pain on a daily basis, and how anxious they feel as a result. Whether it’s a client who is fed up with the diarrhea she’s been dealing with for the last year or the friend who wishes he didn’t have to worry about acid reflux keeping him up most nights, lots of people are afflicted by symptoms caused by eating. Yes, eating is necessary, but of course it should be pleasurable, too.
According to the National Institutes of Health data from 2009, at least 60 – 70 million people in the U.S. (19 – 23% of the population) have at least one digestive disorder. This includes:
- 5% of the population who have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS),
- 7% who deal with gallstones,
- 20% who suffer from chronic constipation, and
- 20% who experience at least weekly symptoms of acid reflux (GERD).
Of course, these numbers are based only on the people who were diagnosed with or self-reported having the condition. The actual numbers are likely to be even higher, especially considering that many people have decided there is nothing that can be done to get their digestive system working properly again and, therefore, don’t consider it a problem to be discussed or investigated.
Although many people deal with digestive issues on a regular basis, eating food is not supposed to hurt, cause pain or leave us feeling worse than we did before we ate. Our phenomenal bodies were designed to digest, absorb and eliminate our food in a virtually seamless process. Aside from a little belch here or a little flatulence there, we shouldn’t have to worry about what’s going to happen after we put food in our mouths or how our bowels are going to behave. In fact, if you have to think about your gastrointestinal tract (which starts with your mouth and ends with your anus) because of any kind of pain, pressure, discomfort or malfunction, then your body is trying to tell you that something is wrong.
Plus, we shouldn’t have to spend the estimated $100 billion in out-of-pocket medical expenses that we as a nation do every year to deal with the symptoms caused by poorly-functioning digestive systems!
If you are someone who struggles with digestive issues (or have a loved one who does), don’t despair because there is hope! By identifying and resolving the root cause of the problem, you can alleviate your discomfort while potentially removing the need to take medications. This may seem like a monumental task right now, but I promise it’s very doable. You see, there are a few causes that are common to the “generic” gut issues such as diarrhea, heartburn and excess gas, and some of the cures for them are really easy to implement.
With the goal of helping you feel better and enjoy eating more completely, I’d like to set out the five most common causes of gastrointestinal complaints. These are:
- Inadequate digestion of food due to:
- Insufficient chewing
- Eating a large (or very large) meal, resulting in an overloaded digestive system
- Insufficient production of stomach acid or pancreatic digestive enzymes, which may or may not be related to a problem with the gall bladder or bile ducts
- Inability to digest sucrose, lactose, sugar alcohols, legumes or other foods high in FODMAPs
- Inadequate vagus nerve stimulation (This is the nerve that connects your brain to multiple organs in your abdomen including your esophagus, stomach and intestines. When the nerve doesn’t get enough stimulation from the brain, it can’t tell your digestive system to work effectively or efficiently.)
- Food sensitivity or intolerance
- Bacteria, yeast or parasite overgrowth in the intestine
- Consuming insufficient amounts of fiber or water
- Taking prescription, over-the-counter or illicit drugs including NSAIDs and anti-inflammatories like aspirin and ibuprofen; antidepressants; antibiotics; nitroglycerin; anxiety, hypertension or osteoporosis medications; and cocaine
If you deal with one or more digestive issues on a regular basis, I want you to know that there likely is a solution to relieve your discomfort without prescription or over-the-counter medication. Now, I am not suggesting that digestive issues should never be resolved with medication. Rather, I want you to be aware that there are alternative solutions for you to consider based on the cause of the problem. With a little investigative work (by yourself using the various links for the causes above and/or in conjunction with a healthcare practitioner), you can find and resolve the specific cause of your digestive discomfort. That way, you can get on with focusing on your life while your digestive system happily gets on with its job of absorbing nutrients and getting rid of waste without any need for extra attention.
As a final note, always consult with your doctor before discontinuing any medication, and seek the advice of a qualified healthcare practitioner (like me!) if you are not sure how to proceed with getting your digestive system back to optimal function.
 National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.Opportunities and Challenges in Digestive Diseases Research: Recommendations of the National Commission on Digestive Diseases.
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