How To Manage Common Digestive Issues

January 2023

Everyone experiences stomach troubles from time to time. Unpleasant digestive issues — like occasional constipation, diarrhea, or heartburn — usually pass quickly. Often, you can prevent or manage your symptoms with diet and lifestyle changes.

Keep reading to learn more about common digestive health issues, helpful home remedies, and which symptoms demand a doctor’s attention.

Common Digestive Conditions and How To Manage Them

Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract connects your mouth to your anus. It includes your esophagus (the tube between your throat and stomach), stomach, and small and large intestines.

Functional digestive disorders affect how the GI tract works. They can cause pain or discomfort anywhere in your belly or chest.

Heartburn

Heartburn often strikes at night after eating a heavy meal. It causes a burning sensation in your chest or throat.

Heartburn doesn’t affect your heart. Instead, it happens when the sphincter muscle between your stomach and esophagus doesn’t close tightly after eating. This causes stomach acid to escape from your stomach and travel into your esophagus.

To prevent heartburn, try eating a smaller meal and remaining upright for at least three hours after eating. If you have to lie down, raise the head of your bed a few inches or use pillows to keep your head and abdomen elevated. That helps your stomach acid stay in your stomach and out of your esophagus

Certain foods also trigger heartburn, so you might feel better if you avoid:

  • Fried, greasy, high-fat foods, such as french fries, fried chicken, gravy, bacon, and ice cream
  • Foods with tomato sauce, such as pasta and pizza
  • Spicy foods with hot chili peppers, such as Mexican and Thai food
  • Citrus fruits, such as grapefruit and oranges
  • Chocolate
  • Peppermint
  • Carbonated beverages

Diarrhea

Diarrhea causes loose, watery, frequent bowel movements and cramps. It’s usually short-lived and resolves within a few days. Diarrhea can happen for many reasons, including:

  • A stomach virus
  • Food poisoning
  • A reaction to a new medication
  • A food intolerance

Lactose intolerance is a common food intolerance that can cause diarrhea after eating or drinking dairy foods. It happens because your body doesn’t make enough of the enzyme that breaks down lactose (milk sugar). If you’re lactose intolerant, you should avoid dairy foods and beverages like:

  • Dairy milk and cream
  • Cheese
  • Ice cream
  • Yogurt

If you don’t want to avoid these foods, try taking lactase enzyme pills to help you digest the lactose. You can also switch to lactose-free milk.

Gas or Bloating

Certain foods can trigger gas or bloating. Gas is the air that gets trapped in your GI tract and wants to escape; it causes burping, belching, and/or flatulence. You might also feel pain, cramps, or fullness in your belly, or your stomach might look larger than usual.

To reduce gas, try limiting these common gas-producing foods:

  • Beans, such as kidney, pinto, black beans, chickpeas, and lentils
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Whole wheat foods, such as wheat bran and shredded wheat
  • Dairy foods, such as milk and ice cream (lactose intolerance also causes gas and bloating)
  • Low-calorie sweeteners, such as sorbitol and xylitol (which are used in some sugar-free candies and gums)

Constipation

Constipation means having fewer bowel movements than usual, often less than three per week. Bowel movements are usually hard, dry, and painful to pass.

Most of the time, constipation happens when you have a change in your diet, like when you’re traveling. Eating too little fiber or not drinking enough water causes waste to move too slowly through your GI tract. To stay regular, aim for eight glasses of water daily and increase your fiber by eating more of these foods:

  • Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains, such as oats, barley, brown rice, and whole wheat bread
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts and seeds

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a longer-lasting functional GI disorder that affects the stomach and intestines. It causes diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, or any combination of these symptoms.

Symptoms can flare up and then improve, but they tend to return repeatedly.

Many people can manage IBS symptoms with diet and lifestyle changes, including:

  • Eating smaller meals with snacks in between
  • Eating slowly and chewing food well
  • Reducing stress with mindful techniques, such as yoga or meditation
  • Avoiding foods that trigger symptoms

If home remedies don’t provide enough relief, talk to your doctor. They may prescribe medication or other treatments.

When To Call Your Doctor

Call your doctor if your digestive symptoms don’t improve with lifestyle changes — or if your symptoms interfere with your daily living.

Your doctor can screen you for any serious medical conditions. They may also test you for celiac disease, which is a lifelong condition that causes many of these GI symptoms and is induced if you eat gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley.

In addition, call your doctor if you experience any of the warning signs below. These can indicate a more serious problem that demands prompt medical attention:

  • Bleeding when you have a bowel movement
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Severe pain

With proper diagnosis and treatment for more complex digestive health issues, you can live a full and active life.

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