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Signs Your Digestive System Isn't as Strong as it Should Be

Expert explains what to know about your digestive system and signs it's not healthy. 

Everyone has digestive issues from time to time, but when symptoms become a regular occurrence, it could mean you have a digestive problem. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 60-70 million Americans live with digestive disease and knowing the signs iis vital to getting a quicker diagnosis and treatment. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with Dr. Suhail Salem, M.D., Gastroenterologist with Dignity Health Northridge Hospital and United Medical Doctors who shares what to know about your digestive system and signs that indicate a problem. As always, please consult your physician for medical advice. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Why Your Digestive System is Important

eating a bagel

Dr. Salem tells us, "Your digestive system is made up of all the organs necessary for your body to ingest food, break it down, absorb all the nutrients, as well as store and eliminate leftover waste. It begins with swallowing food down your esophagus into your stomach. The acid and enzymes in your stomach help to break down the food and propel it into your small intestine. The nutrients from food are then absorbed in the small intestine and the remaining waste is transported to the colon. In the colon, water and electrolytes are still absorbed, leaving indigestible waste to be transported and eliminated from your colon. The liver, gallbladder, and pancreas also secrete important fluids into the intestinal tract to facilitate digestion. Your digestive system is important to extract energy and nutrients to make sure the rest of your body can grow and function normally throughout life."


Don't Ignore Symptoms

Man at doctor's office.

Dr. Salem says, "The digestive system is a complicated, elaborate system that works in harmony. For the most part, it works incredibly well, especially if it is well cared for, but even then most people will experience some digestive symptoms from time to time. Most of these symptoms are not a sign of serious disease, but it is important to discuss them with your doctor. Depending on your medical history, additional testing or treatment may be necessary but for many people, changes in diet and lifestyle may be enough."


Causes of Digestive Issues

"Many different things can have a negative impact on your digestive system, including an unhealthy diet or lifestyle, gastrointestinal infections, inflammatory conditions, medical conditions such as diabetes, medication side effects, cancer, or surgery," Dr. Salem states. 


Take Care of Your Digestive Health

woman eating fruit

Dr. Salem reminds us, "Being proactive about the health of your digestive system can help prevent disease or troublesome digestive symptoms. Consuming a healthy diet, high in fiber, with lots of fruits and vegetables can keep your gut healthy, while at the same time avoiding unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking excessive alcohol, or eating too much red meat. In addition, cancer screenings can help eliminate cancers before they develop in many patients, so it is important to participate in screening programs."


Diarrhea or Loose Stools

Bathroom toilet paper

Dr. Salem explains, "Diarrhea may be a sign of a problem in your digestive tract. A bulk forming fiber supplement such as psyllium husk is always a good start, but medical testing for conditions like Celiac disease or Inflammatory bowel disease can help identify the cause and what specific measures would be most helpful in each individual."


Small, Hard Pellet Like Stools / Constipation


"Most often this indicates a slow moving digestive system and build up of waste in the colon can cause symptoms like bloating and abdominal pain," says Dr. Salem. "Again, fiber supplementation is a good first step in this case, though it may not work for everyone. Depending on your age, a colonoscopy may be necessary to ensure there is no physical blockage or colon cancer."


Abdominal Pain

Senior man with stomach pain

Dr. Salem shares, "Abdominal pain is a sign that something could be wrong in your digestive system. Pain in your abdomen could indicate a problem in any of your digestive organs, including the stomach, gallbladder, small or large intestine, or pancreas. It is important to get evaluated to identify the cause of pain as best as possible, so specific treatment can be prescribed."


Blood in the Stool


Dr. Salem emphasizes, "Blood in the stool is a red flag that needs to be evaluated. There are several serious causes of internal bleeding including peptic ulcers and colon cancer, among many others. Endoscopy and colonoscopy can help identify the cause and help with facilitating the best treatment."


Trouble Swallowing

woman experiencing strong throat ache

Dr. Salem shares, "If food is getting stuck during swallowing, that could indicate a problem in the esophagus. There are some benign conditions such as acid reflux or allergic conditions that may cause this symptom, but in some patients it can be a symptom of a cancer in the esophagus. An endoscopy can be performed to diagnose the cause." 


Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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