According to data from the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 60-70 million people in the United States are living with some form of digestive disease. These conditions range from mild gastrointestinal distress to life-threatening, but they often start with the same types of symptoms.
Most people experience occasional stomach upset from time to time, so how can you tell if it’s temporary tummy trouble or something more? Read on to learn more about the digestive symptoms that warrant a call to the doctor.
Have you been getting heartburn after every meal for more than a few weeks, despite not changing your diet? If yes, you could have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also known as acid reflux, and it’s time to tall your doctor.
Acid reflux and GERD are on the rise, with cases increasing 50% over just 10 years in one Norwegian study. This condition is most common in men and those over 40 years of age, but it can affect anyone.
GERD is worth talking to your doctor about due to the discomfort alone, but that isn’t the only reason for treatment. The chronic presence of acid can also damage your esophageal lining and contribute to widespread tooth erosion and decay.
Frequent Abdominal Pain
Abdominal discomfort can come out of nowhere as the result of gas, bad food, or even a viral infection. If you find yourself regularly doubled over in pain, though, it’s a sure sign that you need to see a gastroenterologist. Generalized abdominal pain is one of the key symptoms of conditions including:
- inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Crohn’s disease
- ulcerative colitis
- colon or stomach cancer
If your pain is localized to a specific area and worsens instead of improving over time, seek medical care right away. This could be a sign of an acute condition like appendicitis.
Feeling Bloated After Eating
Almost all of us have had to loosen our belt a notch or two after eating a large meal, especially if it was filled with fried and fatty foods. If you’re feeling bloated after every meal though, especially if it’s to the point of pain, it could be an indicator of poor gut health.
Pay attention to whether the bloating shows up after consuming any food or drink or if it only appears after eating specific things. This will help you identify whether you might be dealing with food intolerance or a larger problem like Crohn’s disease.
Based on the results of testing, your gastroenterologist may recommend changing your food intake as a first step. This might mean cutting out certain foods like dairy, taking probiotic supplements, or following the low FODMAP diet to decrease systemic inflammation.
Chronic Constipation or Diarrhea
Like the other conditions on this list so far, most people will experience abnormal bowel movements off and on throughout their lives. The time to let your doctor know is when constipation and/or diarrhea become your “normal”.
Chronic, severe constipation (three or fewer bowel movements per week) often has a neurological cause. In some cases, the communication line between your brain and intestines gets interrupted and your bowel muscles aren’t told that it’s time to empty. Other causes can include dehydration, diet, or an intestinal blockage.
Frequent or persistent diarrhea means that your intestines aren’t absorbing fluid well enough. This can be the result of your diet or food intolerance, an infection, or even parasites. It might also be the first sign of a chronic digestive condition like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
Both diarrhea and constipation are side effects of some medications, so talk to your doctor about switching prescriptions if it seems like they’re causing your abnormal bowel movements.
Noticing blood during a bowel movement is another indication that you need to speak with your doctor.
Blood that appears fresh and bright red is of the least concern, especially in small amounts. It’s often due to a surface tear in the soft tissues of your lower digestive tract and is common with constipation.
Bright red blood is only an immediate concern when it persists or is present in large amounts. This might be an indicator of internal hemorrhoids, a thinning intestinal lining, or another colon injury.
If the blood is dark red or brown, clotted, or grainy like coffee grounds, see a physician immediately. The darker the blood, the longer it’s been sitting. This means that the source of the bleed is likely higher up in your stomach or small intestine and needs prompt medical treatment.
Non-GI Symptoms That Indicate Gastrointestinal Distress
In many cases, a serious GI condition will exhibit more than digestive symptoms alone. Here are a few of the other signs to watch out for:
- unexplained weight loss and/or constant weight fluctuations
- abdominal cramping
- depression, fatigue, or low energy
- nausea and/or vomiting
- nutrient deficiencies not related to diet
- acid reflux or esophageal pain
- difficulty swallowing foods or liquids
- chronic halitosis (bad breath)
- tooth enamel erosion, especially on the backs of the teeth
The above symptoms can have many diverse causes. Experiencing them along with GI distress, though, can be a sign of an auto-immune disease, colon cancer, or other serious digestive condition. Make sure to talk to present your doctor with a list of all your symptoms, whether or not you think they’re related to your gut health.
You Don’t Need to Live With Chronic Gastrointestinal Distress
Living with chronic bloating, abnormal bowel movements, and abdominal pain is miserable. Having to always be preoccupied with what you can eat and the location of the nearest bathroom can keep you from living a normal life.
Thankfully, GI doctors can treat many of the conditions that cause gastrointestinal distress. If you notice any of the symptoms listed above, it’s time to make an appointment.
Are you looking for more advice on how to manage gastrointestinal conditions like Crohn’s disease and IBS? Take a look at this article for five actionable tips that can help you improve your colon health.