Spanning up to 30 feet long, the digestive system is an intricate and vitally important involvement of numerous organs, tasked with the breakdown of food and absorption of useful nutrients. Problems with the digestive system are common, with approximately 4 in 10 people having at least one digestive symptom at any one time. Digestive complications can cause issues absorbing an adequate amount of nutrients, as well as causing abdominal pain and discomfort among a whole host of unfavourable symptoms.
This health centre article aims to cover the common conditions associated with the digestive system, enabling you to prevent and treat abnormalities so you can maximise the efficiency of this essential bodily function.
What’s the Digestive System?
The digestive system is a term used to describe the group of organs involved in digestion (the process of breaking down food, absorbing its nutrients, and removing waste). This includes the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), which consists of a series of hollow organs joining the mouth to the anus, as well as the solid organs including the liver, pancreas and gallbladder. The oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and anus are all vital components in the task of food processing, whereby nutrients need to be broken down into small enough pieces to be absorbed and used for energy, growth and repairing cells. Food moves through the GI tract thanks to the process of peristalsis, in which the muscles in the walls of the various organs contract and relax to push food to the next stage of the digestive system, with mechanical and chemical digestion occurring at the various stages. The small intestine is the organ that absorbs the majority of the nutrients we process (with the help of enzymes secreted from the pancreas), and the circulatory system distributes these across the body for immediate use or storage, a process that the liver is involved in among its other functions. The stool is then stripped of water in the large intestine and passed to the rectum, where the faeces exits through the anus.
Treating Common Digestive Conditions
For all elements of the digestive system to work cohesively, we rely on a healthy and balanced diet; our sensitivity to certain food types often dictates how effectively our digestive organs can operate. It’s common to experience issues with digestion, resulting in the following conditions we explore below:
Diarrhoea (also spelt diarrhea) is characterised by loose or watery stools, typically experienced several times in a day. Acute diarrhoea is a common condition almost everyone will experience at some point, usually lasting up to 2 days, whilst chronic diarrhoea lasting several weeks could be a symptom of a chronic disease. On average, adults in the UK experience diarrhoea once per year, and children twice per year .
The common causes of diarrhoea include:
- Bacteria or parasites from contaminated water or food
- Viruses like the flu, rotavirus (commonly causing diarrhoea in children), or norovirus
- Food intolerances and sensitivities, such as lactose intolerance
- Issues with the stomach or colon, such as Crohn’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Medications such as antibiotics or those used to treat cancer
Our tips for preventing and treating diarrhoea are as follows:
- Treat diarrhoea with medication that hardens the stools, and slows down overactive bowels. Imodium capsules are an affordable over-the-counter treatment that improves diarrhoea symptoms within an hour of taking, and are also available as the orodispersible Imodium Instants for those who find swallowing difficult.
- Prevent dehydration by drinking plenty of water, and replenish lost electrolytes with Dioralyte sachets or sports drinks.
- Eat starchy, low-fibre foods that are fairly bland, such as potatoes, bananas, rice, soup and toast.
- Avoid consuming milk, alcohol, caffeine or spicy foods.
Many people have sensitivities, intolerances or even allergies to certain food types. A food sensitivity or intolerance is triggered by the digestive system, and can cause gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, cramping or nausea. You might be able to eat a small amount of the associated food without any issues. A food allergy, on the other hand, is an immune system reaction that can cause anything from throat irritation to, in some cases, a threat to life (anaphylaxis). Those with food allergies, such as a peanut allergy, should steer clear of consuming even small amounts of the associated food.
It is estimated that around 65% of the population have a reduced ability to digest lactose, making it the most common food sensitivity. Our tips for treating and preventing symptoms of lactose intolerance include:
- Consume products containing low levels of lactose or that are lactose-free. High lactose products to avoid include milk, ice cream, certain cheeses and cream, all of which are available to purchase in lactose-free variants. If you must eat these foods, do so with plenty of other low-lactose food to lessen the symptoms.
- Dairy foods containing active cultures, such as probiotic yoghurt, are fine to consume; the bacteria in these products help break down their lactose and so will be more easily digested.
- Take lactase enzyme tablets when you consume dairy products. Those that are lactose intolerant are deficient in the lactase enzyme needed to digest dairy sugars into glucose and galactose, so this supplement tops up the lactase levels, enabling better digestion.
Acid Reflux and GORD
Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid rises into the oesophagus, causing irritation of it’s lining. The stomach lining is adapted to be protected against this powerful acid, however, the oesophagus is not, so when the lower oesophageal sphincter fails to tighten properly, stomach acid can flow in the wrong direction. This can leave a bitter taste in the mouth, as well as causing a burning sensation in the chest known as heartburn. If this is an issue you experience frequently, you may have the chronic form of the condition, known as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease.
To prevent and treat acid reflux and GORD, you should try the following tips:
- Slow your eating, and don’t lie down too soon after eating.
- Avoid foods that can trigger acid reflux, such as spicy or high-fat foods, onions, alcohol, coffee, milk and chocolate. Also steer clear of carbonated drinks.
- Try to be more active, as low levels of exercise and benign overweight are common risk factors.
- Take over-the-counter medications such as Gaviscon Tablets, Gaviscon Liquid and Gaviscon Sachets to neutralise stomach acid and relieve discomfort.
- If eligible, take prescription acid reflux treatments such as Omeprazole, Lansoprazole and Pantoprazole. These medications are known as proton pump inhibitors, and are regarded as more effective long term solutions to OTC treatments.