Everyone is bound to suffer from tummy troubles at some point, but the embarrassment attached to digestive distress often makes it a hush-hush affair.
While you suffer in silence assuming that it’s just your stomach acting up because of something you ate, the gastrointestinal discomfort could just, as likely, be something more serious that warrants special care.
Despite being synonymous with your stomach, the digestive system is, in fact, a far more extensive and intricate framework, which contains a number of other organs within its purview.
The long-drawn process of digestion entails the breakdown and processing of foods consumed through the mouth for the release of energy and culminates with the elimination of waste through the rectum and anus.
The grunt work begins with chewing the food that mixes with saliva and passes through the esophagus to reach the stomach. It is here that the swallowed food is processed into its composite nutrients by the action of gastric juices secreted by the stomach lining.
Thereafter, the partially digested mass travels to the small intestine for further breakdown by the digestive juices from several organs, including your pancreas and gallbladder. The nutrients thus released are then absorbed and serve as a source of energy that fuels the overall functioning of the body.
The residual waste goes through your large intestine where water is absorbed from it before it is excreted out of the body through the rectum and anal orifice.
Any mishap or disruption along the way can hamper the body’s ability to effectively digest the food and can give rise to a wide array of digestive problems, ranging from mild to severe.
The smooth breakdown of food into nutrients is especially important to give your body sustenance, as well as for the purpose of growth and cell repair.(1)
If the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from your diet becomes compromised, the result can be as severe as starvation or malnutrition. While this might seem like an overstatement, the fact of the matter is that even minor digestive issues, if left untreated long enough, can spiral into graver chronic illnesses.
Moreover, gastrointestinal disorders can be traced back to either functional or structural hindrances. Of the two, functional ailments, such as constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), are far more prevalent than structural disorders, which often require surgery to correct or remove the structural abnormality.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, about 60 to 70 million Americans suffer from some kind of digestive problem.(2)
In some cases, the digestive discomfort is relatively mild and resolves on its own in a short time, but some conditions can be chronic or long-lasting and require medical assistance.
However common or harmless you might think your stomach upset is, it is best not to take it lightly, especially if it’s a frequent hassle.
What Causes Digestive Problems?
While the causes of digestive problems vary, some common factors are:
- Poor diet
- Improper hygiene
- Lack of exercise
- Inadequate water intake or dehydration
- Ingestion of food or water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites
- Excessive smoking
- Excessive alcohol intake
- Lack of sleep
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Anatomical changes or defects in the digestive tract after surgery, which can restrict your digestive process
- Certain drugs such as antibiotics, NSAIDs, and diabetic medications, among others, which can cause digestion-related adverse side effects
- Genetic makeup, which predisposes some people to certain digestive ailments, including Crohn’s disease, colon or pancreatic cancer, and celiac disease etc.
- Hormonal spikes during pregnancy, which can slow down the digestive process
Signs and Symptoms of Digestive/Gastrointestinal Problems
Some of the most common telltale signs that indicate trouble in the upper gastrointestinal tract include:(5)
- Abdominal pain that persists for a long time or keeps recurring
- Pain in the chest
- The feeling of a lump in the throat
- Foul breath or halitosis
- Repeated or involuntary regurgitation of undigested or partially digested food from the stomach, which is then rechewed and swallowed or spat out
- Upper abdominal fullness
- Nausea and vomiting
Similarly, the following symptoms indicate that all is not well with the functioning of your lower gastrointestinal tract:
- Excessive gas or bloating resulting in frequent belching, burping, or flatulence
- Abdominal cramps and pain
- Frequent or urgent bowel movements
- Painful diarrhea
- Rectal pain or bleeding
- Blood in the stools
Some other common symptoms are:
- Swallowing problems
- Weight gain or loss
Treating Digestive Problems
Treatment for digestive disorders varies for each disorder, abdominal part affected, symptoms and severity, and can range from lifestyle changes, medication, to surgery.
Some of the treatment approaches for digestive problems, depending on the severity, symptoms, and the patient’s medical history, are:
- Adopting better lifestyle choices, such as quitting smoking and limiting alcohol consumption, as well as incorporating a bit of light exercise in your daily schedule.
- Improved and suitably balanced dietary intake with regards to your health profile, such as replacing high-fat, acidic foods with more fibrous and nutrient-dense foods.
- Digestive conditions, which are not acute and have mild symptoms, can be effectively managed by over-the-counter medications, such as antacids and pain relievers.
- Your doctor might prescribe relatively stronger medications and antibiotics to dampen the discomfort or treat your particular digestive ailment, either for short-term or long-term use, depending on your individual case.
- Conditions that are serious enough to be beyond the scope of home recovery or conventional medicine might only stabilize after hospitalization and call for stomach draining, the administration of IV fluids, and assessment at the hospital.
- Surgery is warranted in cases where the digestive tract has been damaged irremediably or is in the need of repair. One also has to resort to surgery for the removal of cancerous or dead tissue.
- In the case of full-blown cancer, one has to undergo radiation or chemotherapy.
As there are different types of digestive problems, proper diagnosis and treatment are essential. However, you can use home remedies and lifestyle changes to treat some common digestive issues, such as indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, and bloating.
Serious digestive problems, however, may need treatment by a specialist.
Alternative Remedies to Treat Digestive Problems
Here are 10 home remedies to treat digestive problems.
1. Add Ginger to Your Diet
To improve digestion and prevent digestive problems, you must include ginger in your diet. It stimulates digestive juices and the flow of enzymes needed to properly digest food. It is effective for preventing and reducing nausea, vomiting, flatulence, indigestion, bloating, and diarrhea.(8)
In a preliminary study, after an 8-hour fast, patients with functional dyspepsia ingested three capsules that contained ginger (total 1.2 g) or placebo. It was found that gastric emptying was more rapid after ginger than placebo [half-emptying time 12.3 (8.5–17.0) min after ginger; 16.1 (8.3–22.6) min after placebo], and a trend for more contractions in parts of the stomach that participate in stomach emptying was observed.(9)
In addition, ginger has carminative, antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties that help prevent digestive problems.
- Drink 2 to 3 cups of ginger tea daily. To make the tea, boil 1 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger in 1½ cup of hot water. Let it simmer for 10 minutes, strain out the ginger, add some raw honey, and enjoy your tea.
- Alternatively, add 2 teaspoons of ginger juice and 1 teaspoon of honey to a cup of warm water. Drink this juice once or twice a day.
- To improve digestion, chew a small piece of ginger after your meals.
2. Consume Probiotic Foods
Probiotic foods help keep your digestive system healthy and functioning efficiently.
Probiotics contain strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium (“good bacteria”) that help restore the natural balance of your gut bacteria. They can help treat and prevent digestive problems such as diarrhea, abdominal bloating, flatulence, and IBS.(10)(11)
A 2010 study published in Therapeutic Advances in Gastroenterology highlights the efficacy of probiotics, as either a single strain or a combination of probiotics, in treating several digestive issues.(12)
- Some of the best probiotic foods include Greek yogurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, buttermilk, and sour pickles.
- You can even take probiotic supplements, but only after consulting your doctor.
3. Peppermint can be Beneficial
The herb peppermint also aids digestion and prevents digestive disorders. Its carminative, antispasmodic, and anti-inflammatory properties help treat gas, bloating, and intestinal cramps, as well as nausea and vomiting.(13)
In addition, it helps calm an upset digestive system and accelerates healing.
A study published in Digestive and Liver Diseases suggests that this herb helps improve abdominal symptoms in people suffering from IBS. It can even be used to alleviate similar symptoms arising from a case of lactose intolerance or celiac disease.(14)
- Drink peppermint tea once or twice a day. To make the tea, add 1 teaspoon of dried peppermint leaves to 1 cup of hot water. Cover and steep for 10 minutes. Strain and drink the tea.
- Eat fresh peppermint leaves daily by sprinkling them over your dishes or adding them to your salads.
- Another option is to take enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules three or four times a day for a few weeks.
4. Chew Some Fennel Seeds
Fennel seeds also support digestive health. You can use them to treat heartburn, indigestion, and low stomach acidity. These seeds also provide relief from intestinal spasms and bloating commonly associated with IBS.(15)
- Chew 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds after eating your meal to aid digestion.
- To treat indigestion, drink fennel tea. To make fennel tea, steep 1 teaspoon of crushed fennel seeds in 1 cup of hot water for about 5 minutes.
- You can also take ½ teaspoon of fennel seed powder along with a glass of water twice daily
5. Use Asafoetida in Cooking
The potent-smelling spice asafetida is good for your digestive health due to its antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antiflatulent properties.(17)
- To improve digestion, mix a pinch of asafetida in a glass of warm water and drink it after your meals. Also, include this spice in your daily cooking.
- For small babies, you can rub a little asafetida mixed with water around the navel to reduce stomach pain and gas.
6. Drink Licorice Root Solution
Licorice root boasts compounds that exhibit substantial antioxidant, demulcent, antiulcer, anti-inflammatory, antiallergenic, antitoxic, antispasmodic properties.
However, the effectiveness of this recovery agent is not limited to just its glycyrrhizin content. For instance, deglycyrrhizinated licorice extract, which is without any glycyrrhizin, has been shown to be beneficial in treating duodenal and gastric ulcers.(21)
- Simmer 1 teaspoon of licorice root in 8 ounces of water for 20-30 minutes.
- Drink this concoction two or three times a day to maintain a healthy digestive system.
- The optimal dosage recommended for ensuring your digestive health is 5-15 grams of cut or powdered root, or dry extracts equivalent to 200-600 mg of glycyrrhizin.
7. Slurp Psyllium Husk Milk
Psyllium husk, also known as isabgol, can help promote regularity and overall digestive health.
- Thoroughly mix ½ to 1 teaspoon of psyllium husk in 1 glass of warm water or milk.
- Drink it before going to bed.
- Repeat daily for smooth bowel movements.
8. Aloe Vera Juice can be Effective
Aloe vera has powerful laxative properties that support the proper functioning of the digestive system. Plus, compounds called polysaccharides in it help treat different digestive disorders, including stomach ulcers.(24)
In addition, aloe vera has anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal properties that help soothe irritation and inflammation in the digestive tract.
- Add 2 tablespoons of aloe vera gel to 1 cup of water or orange juice.
- Blend these in a blender.
- Drink this every morning on an empty stomach.
9. Drink Turmeric Juice
Another herb used to treat common digestive disorders is turmeric.
Curcumin, the active component in turmeric, stimulates the gallbladder to release bile, which aids digestion and improves liver function. Its anti-inflammatory property also helps reduce inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract.(25)
A 2013 study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology found turmeric to be an effective therapeutic agent for the treatment of both functional and organic digestive diseases.(26)
You can use this popular herb to palliate the symptoms of several digestive disorders, including dyspepsia, peptic ulcers, IBS, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and GERD.
- Drink a ½ teaspoon of turmeric juice with a glass of water a day to prevent digestive problems. You can also include raw turmeric in your regular cooking.
- Another option is to take curcumin supplements. For proper dosage and suitability, consult your doctor.
10. Include Oatmeal in Your Diet
Oatmeal can even reduce symptoms such as heartburn and nausea associated with GERD.
In addition, being a bland, low-fat food, oatmeal is easy to digest, which means you can enjoy it even when suffering from diarrhea.
- For a healthy digestive system, start your day with a bowl of oatmeal. You can add fruits and nuts to enhance its nutritional value.
- You can also try oat flour and oatmeal cookies to improve your digestion.
Anecdotal Remedies for Digestive Problems
The following remedies are neither backed by scientific evidence nor are they reviewed by our health experts. Nonetheless, a number of general users have reported an improvement in their condition using these anecdotal remedies
1. You can give your sluggish digestive system a much-needed push with a little help from milk thistle.
2. Sipping on some freshly brewed chamomile tea can help manage and palliate a variety of digestive discomforts, including flatulence, spasm or colic, ulcers, upset stomach, and gastrointestinal irritation.
3. Another natural ingredient that helps calm digestive unrest and irritation is slippery elm. Its mucilage content, which is a substance that transforms into a slick gel when mixed with water, washes over and coats the lining of the mouth, food pipe, stomach, and intestines.
This protective layer of mucilage can thereby shield the gastrointestinal tract from excess acidity and development of ulcers.
4. The traditional Chinese medicinal technique of acupuncture can also work as a complementary aid to banish digestive ailments. It can help improve digestive functioning by nourishing the related organs and mitigating the inflammation of the stomach and pancreas. The best way to optimize the benefits of this therapy is to get it done by a registered practitioner.
Types of Digestive Disorders
- Stomach flu or Gastroenteritis – This can be caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites that you pick up either by coming in contact with infected surfaces and stools or by directly ingesting contaminated food. This condition is characterized by the inflammation of the intestinal lining.
- Allergic reactions to certain foods – This can cause nausea and vomiting, among other symptoms that are unrelated to digestion.
- Food intolerance – This translates to the body’s inability to tolerate and digest certain foods, it is often at the root of abdominal pain. Food intolerance differs from food allergies in the sense that it only affects the digestive system. One such chronic disorder is celiac disease, which is rooted in intolerance to gluten.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) – This is a condition that occurs when the stomach acid or bile backs up in your swallowing pipe (esophagus) and irritates its lining on account of a fault in the sphincter muscle at the lower end of your esophagus.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) – This is a long-term inflammatory condition that affects one or more parts of the digestive tract. Crohn’s disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis (UC) are variants of IBD, wherein the former affects the entire gastrointestinal (GI) tract with the small intestine, whereas the latter only affects the colon.
- Digestive distress – This can also be traced back to inflammatory conditions afflicting the liver, such as hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
- Food poisoning – This is caused by the intake of foods or drinks contaminated with different types of bacteria, viruses, parasites, and toxins.
- Hemorrhoids or piles – These refer to the enlargement, swelling, or bulging of the veins located in and around the anus and lower rectum due to increased pressure on the blood vessels exerted by excessive straining during bowel movements, pregnancy, or obesity.
- Fecal incontinence – This is the inability to control defecation, leading to the involuntary leakage of bowel contents. This can be a result of altered bowel habits, or damage to the muscle sphincters and nerves responsible for holding the stool on account of age, pregnancy, or surgery.
- An irregular frequency of bowel movements – This can range from constipation to diarrhea. Constipation occurs when the waste material passes too slowly through the large intestine, such that the colon absorbs most of the water from the residual food, resulting in hard and dry stools that are difficult to expel. Diarrhea, on the other hand, is the passing of loose and watery stools with increased frequency.
- Peptic ulcers – These are open sores that form on the lining of the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine, usually due to inflammation caused by the erosion of the lining as a result of excessive stomach acid or can be caused by a type of bacteria called pylori.
- Gallstones – Stones formed in the gallbladder due to the accumulation and hardening of digestive fluid or bile.
- Structural aberrations – These include the development of small bulging pouches in the colon, known as diverticular disease, which disrupt the normal functioning of the digestive system.
- Flatulence – This is the frequent accumulation and, subsequently, passage of gas buildup in the digestive system through the anus.
- Anal fissure – A rupture in the lining of the anus caused by trauma or injury as well as passing large or hard stools.
- Inflammation and swelling of the pancreas, or pancreatitis, as well as long-term continuous liver scarring, known as cirrhosis.
- Blockages in the large or small intestine – These can obstruct the smooth passage of food through the digestive tract and result in gastrointestinal distress.
Preventing Digestive Problems
The following preventive measures can help lower your odds of falling victim to digestive problems or at least help mitigate the severity of symptoms in case you do develop a digestive disorder.
- If people in your family have suffered from inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis, chances are you might develop them as well. It is therefore imperative to look out for its associated symptoms and get the problem checked out by a doctor as soon as you notice any characteristic discomfort or pain.(6)
- It’s best not to sit in one place for a long time or lie down immediately after a meal. Indulging in light post-meal physical activity will assist your body to digest the food better. Also, maintain a gap of at least 3 hours between dinner and bedtime so that your digestive system gets enough time to process the food.
- It is essential that you be careful about what you put in your mouth, whether it meets the stipulated standards of hygiene. Wash your hands before handling, cooking, or eating your food, and be sure to properly clean your kitchen platform and utensils, as well as the fruits, vegetables, and meats that go into your cooking.
- Also, adequately prepare and store your food such that the germs, if any, have no chance of survival.
- Chew your food thoroughly, and eat slowly for proper digestion.
- Eat more fiber-rich foods to prevent digestive problems by regulating the system. You can find fiber in fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains.
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day. It helps in the process of digestion and also prevents constipation.
- Keep track of the foods that do not agree with your stomach and usually cause an upset, and subsequently limit their intake or, if need be, completely eliminate them from your diet.
- If you are lactose intolerant, find your lactose threshold. Although you will have to limit your intake of milk and other dairy products, you do not need to eliminate them completely. For instance, you can still enjoy a little yogurt at a time.
- Instead of eating two large meals, eat four or five small meals to avoid overeating, which has often been associated with GERD and heartburn.
- Never skip breakfast, and be sure to have healthy mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks.
- If you are overweight, you should lose some of your extra weight to help reduce the incidence of GERD.
- Overweight or obese people are more prone to developing certain digestive disorders, which include gallstones, GERD, colon and pancreatic cancers, and several liver diseases.(7) It is therefore imperative that you keep your weight in check by adopting a more active lifestyle and a well-balanced diet.
- Whenever you feel nature’s call coming on, answer it! Holding off on relieving your bowels can lead to constipation among other health issues.
- Give up on bad habits such as smoking and unchecked alcohol intake to prevent bouts of dyspepsia.
- Manage your stress levels as there is a direct association between acute and chronic stress and gastrointestinal disorders. Regular exercise is one way to bring down elevated stress levels and ensure your overall health.
- A wholesome diet consisting of vitamin A, C, and D, along with the entire spectrum of other essential nutrients, is a must for boosting your immunity and, thereby, staving off digestive as well as overall health issues.
When to See a Doctor
Although digestive symptoms are usually thought to be harmless and temporary, in the event that they fail to resolve on their own and persist for more than a week, it’s best you pay a visit to your doctor.
Moreover, if the digestive distress is not a one-off thing and tends to make comebacks quite often, the right thing to do is to get an in-depth analysis by your healthcare provider to rule out any cause of concern.
If, however, you notice any of the following worrisome symptoms, medical assistance is warranted without any delay. These can be considered as red flags signaling a more serious digestive illness at the base:
- Progressively deteriorating symptoms such as indigestion, stomachache, or heartburn
- Erratic bowel movements
- Problems with swallowing
- Sudden and unexplained weight loss
- Bleeding from the bottom
- Dark-or bright-colored blood stains in or on the stool
- Unusual abdominal or gas pains
- The feeling that the bowel has not completely emptied even after passing stool
- Stool that is very narrow
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