What can go wrong with digestion?

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The digestive system is resilient and extremely hard‐working but sometimes things can go wrong. Most digestive problems are to do with lifestyle, food choices or stress. They may be bothersome but fleeting, or they may cause daily suffering.

Some of the more common digestive complaints include:

  • Bloating – Bloating is a familiar digestive problem where the abdomen feels uncomfortably full and tight, and may be visibly distended. It can be accompanied by excessive gas, stomach pain or rumbling. The most common causes of abdominal bloating include eating too fast, swallowing air while eating, constipation, bacterial overgrowth, intolerance to dairy products, menstruation and sugar substitutes. It can also be a symptom of a digestive condition such as irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Gas and flatulence – Excess gas collects in the digestive system in two ways: by swallowing air or through dietary choices. Some components of foods cannot be easily absorbed. This means that they pass through the small intestine into the large intestine undigested. Here, bacteria break down the undigested food releasing gases in the process and potentially leading to excessive flatulence.2
  • Constipation – Constipation is the passing of hard, dry stools which are infrequent or difficult to pass. It may be accompanied by a bloated stomach and abdominal cramps. The most common causes of constipation include a change in routine, insufficient fluids, a low fibre diet or a lack of regular exercise.3
  • Diarrhoea – Diarrhoea occurs when an individual passes frequent loose or watery stools. It’s often usually a symptom of a passing illness or can be caused by food intolerances, certain medicines or other digestive conditions such as medically diagnosed irritable bowel syndrome.4
  • Indigestion – Indigestion is a general term that describes discomfort in the upper abdomen and affects most people from time to time. It may include a feeling of fullness, heartburn and bloating. Causes include eating too much of a particular food such as fatty or spicy foods, eating too quickly, drinking alcohol or it may be linked to stress.4
  • Medically diagnosed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – In people with IBS, the muscles of the colon, sphincters and pelvis do not contract properly, resulting in diarrhoea, constipation and associated abdominal pain and cramps.4 Why IBS develops is still unknown, but illnesses, general diet, food intolerances and stress may trigger attacks in susceptible people.5
  • Food intolerances – Food intolerances occur when a person is overly sensitive to a certain food. Sometimes a reasonable amount of the offending food can be tolerated, but if too much is eaten, or too often, symptoms occur. An example is a dairy intolerance. People who cannot tolerate dairy, or not a lot of it, lack the enzyme lactase, which is needed to break down lactose (milk sugar) into smaller sugars for absorption in the gut. Undigested lactose leads to abdominal spasms, pain, bloating and diarrhoea.6

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Published December 4, 2014
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