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July 6, 2020 • read
What your digestive issues are telling you about your health
From fibre supplements to antacids, there’s a whole industry devoted to easing digestive difficulties — so clearly they’re a common ailment. But just because something’s common, doesn’t always mean it’s normal. Chronic digestive issues might be a signal that something more sinister is going on with your health. Here are some of the most common digestive issues, and what they can tell you about your health.
Constipation is one of the most common digestive complaints. It has a number of causes from not drinking enough fluids to taking certain medications. Like the rest of the body, your digestion slows down as you age, so constipation tends to become more of an issue as you get older. But even if you’re in the 50+ crowd, chronic constipation shouldn’t be a daily occurrence. If you’ve always struggled with sluggish digestion, chatting with a dietician or adding a fibre supplement to your diet can help. But you should always discuss any sudden gastrointestinal changes with a doctor as it might signal something more serious. Chronic constipation can be a sign of colorectal cancer or Parkinson’s disease, for example. But whether it’s a sign of ageing or of an underlying health issue, there are a number of treatments. Chronic constipation doesn’t have to be a fact of life.
Bloating happens when air gets trapped in your digestive tract. It’s incredibly common, and like many gastrointestinal difficulties, usually caused by foods. So-called cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage are common culprits, but fatty foods and soda are also a major cause, as is chewing gum.
But while bloating happens to everyone from time-to-time, if you’re experiencing it regularly, it could be cause for concern. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), lactose intolerance and celiac disease all cause bloating and they’re not likely to go away without medication or lifestyle adjustments. And not to be alarming, but regular bloating is one of the first signs of ovarian cancer. It can also manifest in patients with other forms of cancer such as colon and stomach cancer. If you’re experiencing regular bloating that doesn’t go away despite diet changes, you should consult with a doctor.
Like most other digestive complaints, the occasional bout of diarrhea is normal. Food or illness are often the most likely causes and most cases tend to resolve within a few days. Chronic diarrhea, however, is another story. In an immunocompromised individual, chronic diarrhea can have grave consequences including dehydration and even death. But even a seemingly healthy person experiencing chronic diarrhea should investigate the cause. Chronic diarrhea is one of the first signs of HIV infection, and individuals with the virus can seem healthy for many years after infection while the virus continues to replicate. HIV isn’t the most likely cause, but chronic diarrhea might also be a symptom of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a food intolerance or even diabetes. If you experience loose stools for longer than two weeks, it’s a good idea to reach out to a doctor for advice.
Fecal incontinence can have profound effects on self-esteem and social interactions. It typically results from damage to or weakening of the rectum or anus, often a by-product of ageing or trauma. In women, pelvic floor problems due to pregnancy, labour and delivery can cause it, for example. And both obesity and gastric bypass surgery may increase your risk for fecal incontinence. But whether you think you know what’s causing it or not, seeing your doctor about fecal incontinence is a must. That’s because it can also be a sign of crohn’s disease or poorly controlled diabetes (which leads to nerve damage in the bladder and bowel). Whatever the cause, there are a number of treatments for fecal incontinence including specific exercises, medications and dietary changes. Fecal incontinence is unlikely to resolve on its own, so you’re better off seeking treatment, not suffering in silence.
While the occasional bout of tummy trouble likely isn’t anything to worry about, daily digestive issues shouldn’t be ignored. If you’re experiencing regular bouts of diarrhea, constipation or any other digestive complaints, speak to a doctor about treatment.