There’s a lot that goes into digesting even a small bite of food, too. Mayo Clinic outlines the process, saying your stomach works to break down the food you eat into tinier pieces. From here, those small pieces go to the small intestine, and the fluids from your pancreas, liver, and gallbladder work to break it down even further. When the food moves all the way through your small intestine — which is quite a process — it moves to the large intestine and eventually exits the body.
Grossed out? You shouldn’t be — this is the same process for everyone. But because digestion is such a long task that involves so many different organs, there are plenty of opportunities for things to go awry. The following disorders can give you uncomfortable stomach problems we all wish we could avoid.
1. Celiac disease
This autoimmune disease can lead to a wealth of digestion issues. The Celiac Disease Foundation explains those who have this disorder can’t eat gluten, as it damages their small intestine. Gluten is found in most of the processed foods we eat as well as several grains, which makes it particularly difficult to avoid. Even ingesting crumbs of bread or a sip of beer is enough to trigger problems. When damage occurs, you can’t properly absorb nutrients, which can lead to deficiencies.
Diagnosing celiac is incredibly hard, too, as there are more than 200 symptoms you can have. When children have the disorder, they’re likely to experience digestive symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, and constipation. Oddly enough, only a third of adults who have it get these same symptoms. Many adults with celiac will have anemia, fatigue, and joint pain instead.
Or just gluten sensitivity
If some of the symptoms for celiac sound familiar but you don’t think your diagnosis is as dire, you may just be sensitive to the protein. The Celiac Disease Foundation explains non-celiac gluten sensitivity will give you bloating, abdominal pain, a foggy mind, and chronic fatigue when you ingest gluten, but it’s not full-blown celiac.
So, what can you do? First, it’s important to rule out celiac disease and a wheat allergy as a potential cause for your tummy troubles, says Gluten Intolerance Group. Ask your doctor whether or not you should consider a small intestine biopsy — this is the only tried and true way to tell whether or not you have celiac. You can also take a blood test to check antibody levels, but this isn’t nearly as accurate.
There’s no treatment for gluten sensitivity or celiac, so try staying away from the protein for a few weeks to a few months to see how you feel.
2. Crohn’s disease
This disorder is caused by inflammation in the digestive tract, says CrohnsAndColitis.com. Typically, this inflammation is found where the small and large intestines meet, but it can actually occur anywhere between the mouth and the anus. Depending on what area of the gastrointestinal tract is inflamed, symptoms can go from being mild to very severe. Those who have a more mild case may just have frequent diarrhea or abdominal pain, whereas more severe symptoms include vomiting, severe weight loss, high fever, and infections in the intestines. This clearly isn’t a disease you can easily ignore.
What’s even more worrying is the unpredictability of Crohn’s disease. For some, their symptoms progressively become worse over time, whereas others go through periods of remission. There are many different treatments designed to help this disease, but they all have one goal in mind — keeping inflammation down and symptoms at bay for as long as possible.
3. Ulcerative colitis
This disease looks a whole lot like Crohn’s — they’re both inflammatory bowel diseases, after all. There are some key differences, however. Ulcerative colitis primarily causes inflammation in your large intestine (so, your colon and rectum area), says Mayo Clinic. Symptoms may include diarrhea, abdominal pain, rectal pain and bleeding, urgency to go to the bathroom but an inability to go, and weight loss. The severity of your symptoms typically depends on how much of your intestine is affected — if the inflammation is just in your rectum, you’re likely to have a milder case. If it affects parts of your colon as well, then you’ll have a bigger issue.
As with Crohn’s, the cause is unknown, though you are more likely to develop it if it runs in your family. Doctors have also considered how your immune system may play into developing these two diseases. Your body could be trying to ward off an invading virus and instead is also attacking the cells in your digestive tract, causing the inflammation. Either way, reducing that inflammatory response is key to living a long and healthy life.
4. Irritable bowel syndrome
You probably think irritable bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome are referring to the same condition, but that’s not true. WebMD reminds us IBD (which includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s) causes inflammation and ulcers, whereas IBS does not. Irritable bowel syndrome is actually far less severe than the other. The digestive tract looks like it’s working properly even though it isn’t, which causes discomfort.
If you regularly have typical IBS-related symptoms, diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, and cramping, you aren’t alone. This condition affects between 25 to 45 million Americans. Luckily, it isn’t life-threatening.
If you’ve ever experienced a burning in your chest after eating, you know how painful it can be. Fortunately, there are plenty of over-the-counter medications that can help. If you get heartburn regularly, however, you may have GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, says MedicineNet.com.
When you have heartburn, the liquid contents of your stomach come back up into your esophagus, causing the burning sensation. For those who have the chronic condition, you may also have regurgitation, ulcers in the esophagus, a cough, or inflammation in the throat. GERD doesn’t have a cure, but there are many lifestyle changes and medications you can try to reduce the reflux.
Best remedies for heartburn
If it’s the occasional heartburn that has you down, try diluting a spoonful of baking soda in water and then drinking the mixture. This can help neutralize the stomach acid and bring you relief. Also, try chewing a piece of gum after your meal. Chomping on gum helps you create saliva that is alkaline, meaning it will help neutralize the acids invading your esophagus, says The New York Times.
The worst things you can do? Eat fried and spicy foods, smoke, and go to sleep directly after your meals. You can try antacids, says WebMD, but don’t expect long-term relief.
6. Food intolerance
We’re familiar with people who have to avoid peanuts or shellfish due to an allergy, but food intolerances can be sneaky. Still, they can cause major trouble for your digestive system. Medical News Today explains being sensitive to certain foods can trigger bloating and stomach aches as well as non-digestion related symptoms like migraines and hives. When you have an intolerance, you usually experience these signs a few hours after eating the offending food, but sometimes symptoms can take up to 48 hours to arrive. This makes pinpointing the problem incredibly difficult.
There are many reasons why you may be unable to properly digest certain foods. You may be missing an enzyme — those who are lactose intolerant do not have enough of the enzyme that breaks down the sugars in milk, for example. You may also be unable to digest certain chemicals in your foods, like the caffeine in your coffee. Some artificial colorings, flavor enhancers, and preservatives can also bring on the tummy troubles.
When to do an elimination diet
You may be pretty sure you’re intolerant to something in your diet, but finding out exactly which food it is can be quite a task. You can schedule a test with your doctor, but these are not always accurate. The most effective way to find your intolerance is to try an elimination diet.
To start this, you’ll want to pick a few foods you think you may be incapable of digesting — dairy, gluten, or soy are good places to start. Remove these items from your diet for two weeks to two months and see if your uncomfortable digestive symptoms go away. If they do, slowly reintroduce one food at a time over the course of a few weeks to see if issues return.
7. Colon cancer
This cancer is one of the most preventable, and yet, it’s still the third most common type in the U.S. for both men and women, the American Cancer Society says. Colon cancer starts as a growth on the inner lining of the colon. Not all growths become cancerous, but some do contain the disease, which is why getting regular screenings is so important if you’re over the age of 50. If colon cancer is found during its early stages, there is a very high survival rate.
Some people who have colon cancer experience few to no symptoms, but others will notice a change in their bowel movements, a constant feeling that you need to have a bowel movement, blood in the stool, cramping or stomach pains, and unintended weight loss. These symptoms aren’t exclusive to cancer, which can also make it easy to ignore them in some cases. Do yourself a favor and get checked.
8. Whipple’s disease
Whipple’s disease isn’t something you see every day, and you probably won’t get it either. It’s a rare bacterial infection that affects your small intestine, and from here, the infection can spread and cause major issues. It’s typically life-threatening when left untreated, as it can affect the brain, heart, spinal cord, joints, lungs, and eyes, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases explains.
The bacteria responsible for the infection causes lesions and a thickening of the tissue in the small intestine. From here, your damaged organ has trouble taking in nutrients. Diarrhea and weight loss from not getting adequate nutrition is common with this disease. You may also experience fatty or bloody stools, abdominal cramping, and abnormal patches on your intestines.
If you farm or come into close contact with sewage, you’re more likely to contract this bacteria than anyone else, though your chances are still slim — one out of every 1 million people are diagnosed with Whipple’s disease. Even if you do get it, it’s not all bad news. Antibiotics can help.
This condition occurs when there’s an infection in the membrane lining the abdominal wall, the University of Maryland Medical Center says. The membrane is responsible for covering the inside organs, and this then becomes inflamed. If you’ve ever had a ruptured appendix, a stomach ulcer, or have Crohn’s, you may be at higher risk for developing peritonitis. This is because all three of these can cause holes in the abdominal wall — the perfect place for bacteria to enter and wreak havoc. Liver disease also increases your risk.
Symptoms for peritonitis aren’t too unusual — you may experience nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain with swelling and tenderness, or thirst. But don’t be fooled, as this life-threatening disease requires emergency treatment.
This eating disorder is one we’re all aware of, and its effects on both the body and mind can be incredibly difficult to handle. Bulimia is characterized by repeated periods of binge eating followed by behaviors to get rid of that food. Some people with bulimia will participate in self-induced vomiting, while others will abuse laxatives or exercise for hours on end, Eating Disorder Hope notes.
Binging isn’t just eating a little too much at dinner — for many people with bulimia, these episodes can last for one to three hours. This in itself can cause extreme discomfort, as the stomach needs to expand to accommodate this much food. If self-induced vomiting also occurs after this, the esophagus is damaged from the stomach acid, which can cause huge problems over time. The whole process completely disrupts the digestive process and can cause nausea, diarrhea, indigestion, heartburn, and stomach pain. After awhile, returning to normal eating habits presents not only a mental challenge, but a physical one as well.
Women know there are plenty of uncomfortable symptoms that arrive before their period, and the digestion problems are sometimes the most unpleasant. Unfortunately, that time of the month comes with bloating, gas, and constipation for many. Raquel Dardik, M.D., tells Greatist your body makes more progesterone during the second half of your menstrual cycle leading up to your period. This slows down how quickly food moves through your digestive tract, which can lead to constipation.
Once progesterone levels drop and your period arrives, you may experience the opposite problem — diarrhea. Once those hormone levels go back down, food starts to move through more quickly. Additionally, your uterus releases a hormone-like substance that can also cause diarrhea. Make sure to eat plenty of fiber and exercise regularly to combat these effects.
Keeping your digestive tract happy
Maybe you don’t have any serious disorder plaguing you, but we all have stomach issues from time to time. And remember, your gut is known as your second brain for a reason. When it’s not doing so well, you’re likely to feel out of sorts, moody, and sleepy. Instead of letting time pass curled in the fetal position during stomach distress, we have a few tips to combat problems.
Prevention recommends savoring your meal and really chewing your food. When you eat in a hurry, your gut has to work extra hard to break down everything you threw down. Chewing slowly and enjoying each bite also ensures you’re not gulping too much air, which can cause bloating and gas.
You should also be sure you’re getting enough fiber on a daily basis. The healthy bacteria in your stomach needs fiber as a food source, so feed it with lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. And do your best to cut back on foods that are highly acidic, spicy, fatty, and caffeinated, as these can trigger issues.