Digestive diseases currently affect an estimated 60 to 70 million people in the U.S. and lead to an estimated 21.7 million hospitalizations every year. Gut health plays an important role in a wide range of bodily functions, including immunity, hormone balance, and mental health. Therefore, having good digestion is often key to achieving and maintaining optimal health and wellness. 

Many times, digestive health problems can be prevented by eating healthy foods and practicing a series of other healthy lifestyle behaviors. However, sometimes digestive diseases are genetic or caused by factors such as pregnancy and certain medications. Being screened regularly for digestive diseases and receiving treatment early on can help you achieve better gut health and wellness and reduce the risk of related complications such as cancer and worsened mental health.

Read on to learn more about the link between digestive health and wellness and how Lompoc Valley Medical Center can treat and help you overcome digestive problems.

What is Digestive Health?

Digestive health, also known as gut health, describes the function and balance of bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. The gastrointestinal tract includes the mouth, pharynx (the cavity behind the nose and mouth), esophagus, stomach, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, small intestine, large intestine, rectum, and anus. Ideally, every part of the gastrointestinal tract should work together to allow for proper digestion without any related pain or discomfort.

When it functions properly, the digestive system breaks down foods and liquids into fats, proteins, and carbohydrates that the body uses for energy and cell maintenance. Good digestive health also results in regular bowel movements and minimal gas and bloating. When your gut health is compromised, you may experience low energy, nutritional deficiency, constipation, and countless other symptoms and adverse effects.

Why is Gut Health Important?

A healthy gut is efficient at breaking down foods and liquids into nutrients that can be distributed throughout the body to nearly every organ, including the brain and heart. Good gut health can strengthen the immune system by providing the body with lots of nutrients and ward off bacterial, viral, and fungal infections. A healthy gut can also help improve sleep quality and balance your hormones—including brain neurotransmitters that play a role in mood and mental health. On the other hand, poor gut health can make you more susceptible to a countless number of health problems, including life-threatening illnesses and diseases such as cancer and coronavirus (COVID-19).

What Are Signs and Symptoms of Digestive Diseases?

Digestive diseases share many of the same symptoms, making it difficult for you to determine which disease you may have without a professional exam and diagnosis from a doctor.

Common signs and symptoms of digestive diseases include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Autoimmune conditions (type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Bleeding
  • Bloating
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Excess gas
  • Gallstones
  • Heartburn
  • Incontinence
  • Nausea
  • Skin problems (such as eczema or psoriasis)
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Stomach aches
  • Vomiting
  • Weight gain or weight loss

Some people with digestive diseases may experience only one or two symptoms, while others may experience most or all symptoms. Either way, it’s important to find a doctor with whom you feel comfortable discussing your symptoms so you can be properly diagnosed and treated as early on as possible.

Common Digestive Diseases

Digestive health and wellness play an important role in immunity and in one’s overall physical and mental health.

There are dozens of digestive diseases—some of which are acute and short-lasting, and others of which are chronic and long-lasting. Here are some of the most common digestive diseases.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

GERD occurs when stomach acid regularly flows back up into the esophagus to cause heartburn and irritation. GERD is generally characterized as mild acid reflux that occurs at least two times per week, or moderate to severe reflux that occurs at least once per week. Other symptoms of GERD include chest pain, difficulty swallowing, and the sensation of having a lump in the throat. GERD currently affects an estimated 20% of people in the U.S.

GERD is commonly treated using proton pump inhibitors and H2 blockers, both of which work by reducing acid levels to manage acid reflux. Severe cases of GERD may be treated using laparoscopic surgery, which can tighten loose muscles between the esophagus and stomach to prevent acid from flowing back upward.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

IBD is a term used to describe digestive disorders in which the digestive tract suffers from chronic inflammation. IBD includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease—both of which are characterized by symptoms such as diarrhea, fever, bloody stool, loss of appetite, and abdominal pain. IBD affects an estimated three million adults in the U.S.

IBD is commonly treated using immunosuppressants, anti-inflammatory drugs, and prescription steroids—all of which can help manage and reduce inflammation. Crohn’s disease may also be treated with antibiotics. Ulcerative colitis may be treated with surgery in which the colon is removed and patients must wear a colostomy bag to capture waste.

Gastritis

Gastritis is the term used to describe a group of conditions in which the lining of the stomach is affected by inflammation. Nausea, vomiting, indigestion, and a feeling of fullness in the upper part of the stomach are common symptoms of gastritis. One of the largest risk factors of gastritis is having a Helicobacter pylori bacterial infection.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an immune reaction to eating a protein called gluten, which is commonly found in foods containing wheat, rye, and barley. In people with celiac disease, gluten triggers an immune response in the small intestine to cause symptoms including diarrhea, bloating, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Celiac disease affects an estimated 1 in 141 people in the U.S., and can ultimately result in the malabsorption of nutrients when left untreated.

At present, there are no treatments for celiac disease. However, this disease can be effectively managed by avoiding foods that contain gluten. Flare-ups may occur in the event a person with celiac disease accidentally eats gluten, which can often be safely managed by drinking plenty of water, getting plenty of rest, avoiding lactose, and taking nutritional supplements to prevent malabsorption.

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas and can be either acute or chronic. People with acute pancreatitis may experience fever, abdominal pain, and rapid heart rate, while those with chronic pancreatitis may experience weight loss and have oily, smelly stools. When left untreated, pancreatitis can cause pancreatic cancer, which accounts for an estimated 3% of all cancers in the U.S. and about 7% of all cancer deaths.

What Are the Causes of Digestive Diseases?

Poor gut health and digestion are often caused by certain lifestyle behaviors that directly and/or indirectly affect the digestive tract. Lifestyle behaviors that may contribute to digestive diseases include:

  • Eating a diet low in fiber since fiber contributes to regular, healthy bowel movements.
  • Eating lots of dairies, which is high in lactose.
  • Lack of exercise helps promote blood flow and the movement of food through the digestive tract.
  • Chronic opioid use or opioid misuse since opioids slow down bodily processes, including breathing, heart rate, and digestion.
  • Stress and anxiety, which increase cortisol production and slow digestion as a result.
  • Resisting the urge to have a bowel movement, which can lead to constipation.
  • Overusing laxatives, which can damage nerves in the large intestine that controls the movement of stool.
  • Low water and fluid intake, which can cause stool to dry and harden to result in constipation.
  • Pregnancy, due to increased progesterone production that can slow digestion.
  • Having a family history of digestive diseases, which can pass down through genes.
  • Smoking, which can weaken the muscle between the esophagus and stomach to cause acid reflux.

Which Foods Are Best for Gut Health?

The best foods for gut health can move easily through the digestive tract, and those that can add “good” bacteria back to the gut. Some of the best foods for gut health include:

vegetables

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables—particularly leafy greens—are high in fiber and nutrients that promote a healthy gut and good digestion. Raspberries, broccoli, spinach, kale, and mangoes are some of many fruits and vegetables that can keep your gut healthy and ward off digestive diseases.

cup of quinoa

Whole Grains

Rice, oats, barley, quinoa, and other whole grains are high in fiber and beta-glucan—a carb that is broken down in the large intestine and promotes “good” gut bacteria. 

kimchi

Fermented Foods

Fermented foods and drinks contain high amounts of probiotics that help increase “good” gut bacteria. Examples of fermented foods high in probiotics include kimchi, kefir, yogurt, tempeh, and kombucha.

bowl of beans

Beans and Legumes

Beans and legumes are extremely high in fiber. They can help food move easily through the digestive tract to promote good digestion. Beans can also increase the number of healthy bacteria in the gut. Some of the best beans for gut health include chickpeas (garbanzo beans), black beans, pinto beans, lentils, soybeans, and peanuts.

How Are Digestive Diseases Diagnosed?

If you are experiencing one or more symptoms associated with digestive disorders, your doctor will thoroughly review your medical history, discuss your symptoms in more detail, and perform a physical exam to identify the root cause. Your doctor may also perform or order laboratory tests, imaging tests, and/or endoscopic procedures to properly diagnose your condition.

Tests that can help diagnose a digestive disease include ultrasound, breath test, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography scan (CT or CAT scan), and a stool culture that requires you to submit a stool sample. The number and type of tests used to diagnose digestive diseases will vary based on your symptoms, medical history, and current health status.

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