The Battlefield in your Belly

The Battlefield in your Belly

If there was ever any doubt that modern life disrupts digestion, just take a look at the number of ads for antacids, laxatives, and stomach-soothing medications. The typical American diet and a sedentary lifestyle, paired with the sheer speed of life today, can keep our digestive tract in a constant state of turmoil. As a result, most of us are all too familiar with the uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing symptoms of this gastrointestinal unrest—gas, bloating, heartburn, nausea, constipation, and diarrhea.

A properly functioning digestive system plays a critical role in our overall health and well-being. In fact, all of the nutrients needed to sustain life are absorbed through our gastrointestinal tract. If there is a glitch anywhere along the route, we will not get the nourishment we need to be healthy. And yet, unless there is a problem, most of us take our digestive system for granted. After all, digestion seems like a pretty straightforward process: Take food in, extract the nutrients, and eliminate everything else. And yet, chronic dysfunction in the digestive tract is a common problem among Americans, affecting 60 to 70 million of us each and every year. Digestive issues aren’t just uncomfortable—they can affect our total well-being. As a pharmacist, I see how poor digestion can impact so many aspects of a person’s health and cause a range of both physical and emotional symptoms.

Many of these digestive woes are caused by a poor diet filled with sugar, fat, and overly refined, chemically laced foods. Add in a hectic lifestyle and unhealthy habits and you have a recipe for digestive disaster. Not only does impaired digestion contribute to poor nutrient absorption, over time frequent bouts of relatively minor gastrointestinal ills can lead to more serious problems like hemorrhoids, bowel obstruction, and possibly even esophageal, colon, or rectal cancer. But here’s the good news: Whether it’s heartburn, constipation, digestive upset, or a more vexing problem like irritable bowel syndrome, simply restoring balance is often the key to alleviating or reducing our digestive woes.

RISK FACTORS

Whether it’s a temporary bout of nausea or an ongoing battle with heartburn or constipation, digestive problems can make life miserable. Here are the four most common conditions that can upend our digestive tract:

CONSTIPATION
If you’re feeling a little backed up, you’re not alone. Constipation—having three or fewer bowel movements per week and hard, dry stools—plagues 12 to 19 percent of us, especially as we age. Stress, poor eating habits, lack of exercise, food allergies, an imbalance of bacteria in the gut, and a lack of digestive enzymes are common constipation triggers. But there are other, less obvious causes, too. Prescription drugs, especially antidepressants and some pain medications, can interfere with regular elimination. A magnesium deficiency can also cause constipation, since this mineral is critical to the body’s production of digestive enzymes.

GASTROESOPHAGEAL REFLUX DISEASE (GERD)
GERD occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter (the valve at the end of your esophagus) does not close properly. This allows a mixture of hydrochloric acid and stomach contents to splash back into the esophagus. The resulting irritation can trigger a burning sensation in the throat and chest. While a hiatal hernia may be at the root of GERD, more common causes include being overweight, frequent alcohol use, or being a smoker.

INDIGESTION

Gas, bloating, heartburn, stomach upset, and a feeling of fullness, technically known dyspepsia, affects everyone from time to time. The usual culprits include bolting your food, eating when stressed, or simply overindulging in that pepperoni pizza or spicy taco. But when occasional indigestion becomes chronic, it could be a sign of something more sinister, like gallstones or a peptic ulcer.

IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME (IBS)

It’s estimated that 20 percent of all Americans suffer from IBS. Symptoms can include constipation or diarrhea, abdominal cramping, bowel urgency, gas, and bloating. What’s behind these uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing symptoms? Under normal circumstances, colon motility (the contraction of intestinal muscles and the movement of the intestines’ contents) is tightly controlled by nerves, hormones, and electrical activity in the colon. But eating, stress, depression, and anxiety can cause the colon to overreact. The resulting spasms can increase symptoms in some people. Symptoms can also be triggered by certain foods, such as dairy, wheat, chocolate, alcohol, dietary fats, corn, and “gassy” vegetables like broccoli.
 
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