What are Digestive Symptoms?
Digestive symptoms is any symptom related to the digestive tract and/or digestion. The most common of these symptoms includes:
- Excessive belching
- Excessive and loud stomach noises (borborygmi)
- Sensation of fullness (bloating)
- Excessive flatulence
- Constipation or diarrhea
Collectively, most of the upper gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, heartburn and bloating are collectively referred to as indigestion.
Abdominal pain or cramps as well as abdominal distension does not always arise from the digestive tract. Since the abdomen has so many organs, both digestive and non-digestive, pain can arise from any area or organ that may be totally unrelated to digestion. However, if cramps, pain or distension arises shortly after eating a meal then it may also be considered a digestive symptom.
While digestive symptoms can occur at any time in the day or night, when it is associated with meals then it is also referred to as meal symptoms. These symptoms may arise while eating a meal, immediately after a meal or even while thereafter. Even in the latter scenario, it is apparent that the symptoms are directly associated with meals as the symptoms do not arise when meals are skipped.
Normal Digestion Symptoms
Technically the term symptoms indicates an abnormality or discomfort often associated with a disease. However, even with normal digestion there are certain sensations and changes that we are able to perceive. While it may not be a symptom in the technical sense of the world, it is nevertheless changes and sensations that we are aware of. DUring and after eating, it is normal to feel hunger pangs subside and to eventually feel full after eating a sufficient quantity of food.
Causes of Digestive Symptoms with Meals
There are many different causes of digestive symptoms, which can either arise from a specific part of the gastrointestinal tract or affect many regions or even the entire gut. Symptoms may vary depending on the specific condition as well as the part of the gastrointestinal tract that is affected. Esophageal symptoms arise earlier, either during or after a meal, where as bowel symptoms arise later, usually minutes to hours after a meal.
- Acid reflux (gastroesophageal reflux disease) is a common upper digestive condition where the acidic stomach contents flow backwards into the esophagus. It typically causes heartburn as the esophageal lining is irritated by the acid.
- Esophagitis is a condition where the esophagus becomes inflamed and is often a consequence of chronic acid reflux but may also occur with injury, infections and other disease mechanisms.
- Esophageal stricture is an abnormal narrowing of the esophagus. The narrowing can be due to swelling associated with inflammation, scar tissue, masses or compression from outside the esophagus.
- Gastritis is a common stomach problem where the stomach wall is inflamed. It is often due to H.pylori infection or the excessive use of NSAIDs.
- Gastroenteritis is inflammation of the stomach and intestines commonly due to an infection with viruses, bacteria or protozoa, or the toxins produced by these pathogens. It is commonly known as the a stomach bug or stomach flu when caused by viruses.
- Gastroparesis is a partial paralysis of the stomach often associated with damage to the nerves that control the stomach wall muscles. This delays digestion and emptying of the stomach.
- Peptic ulcer disease (PUD) is another common condition whereby open sores (ulcers) form in the wall of the stomach of duodenum (small intestine) for many of the same reasons as gastritis.
- Pyloric stenosis is a condition where there is narrowing of the end portion of the stomach thereby delaying the emptying of the stomach contents.
- Bowel obstruction is a blockage within the small or large intestine either due to narrowing, muscle dysfunction, a tumor or foreign body.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is inflammation of the bowels due to autoimmune factors. Ulcerative colitis mainly affects the colon (large intestine) while Crohn’s disease can occur anywhere in the digestive tract.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional bowel disorder where symptoms like abdominal pain and alterations in bowel habit occur for no clearly identifiable reason. It is believed to occur due to abnormally rapid or slow gastrointestinal motility.
- Celiac disease is a gastrointestinal condition where the immune system reacts to the presence of gluten, a protein found in wheat. This causes bowel inflammation and damage which affects the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients.
- Food intolerance is where the digestive tract cannot process certain foods, often due to a deficiency of certain nutrients. Example lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, a milk sugar, due to the deficiency of the enzyme lactase.
- Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia may also present with certain digestive symptoms for several symptoms. Sometimes these symptoms are psychogenic due to the aversion to food.
- Alcohol abuse can lead to a host of gastrointestinal disturbances such as alcoholic gastritis. The problem lies with the toxicity of excess alcohol coupled with poor dietary habits in alcoholism.
Remedies for Digestive Symptoms
Avoiding meals is not an option and may even worsen digestive symptoms. Rather problem foods that are more likely to trigger symptoms should be avoided. Other dietary and lifestyle remedies include:
- Eat smaller meals more frequently rather than a few large meals. Try to spread the meals throughout the day, opting for large meals early in the day and smaller meals in the evening and night.
- Keep a food diary and try to isolate specific foods that may be triggers of symptoms. Lactose, fructose and gluten are some of the common foods in food intolerances.
- Try an elimination diet while keeping a food diary. Sometimes trigger foods may not be obvious without attempting an elimination diet.
- Drink plenty of water with meals. It will help with digestion and gastrointestinal motility. Avoid alcohol and sodas with meals which may trigger symptoms.
- Do not lie down or sleep immediately after a meal. Ideally a 2 to 3 hour gap should be left between a meal and bedtime.
- Take a walk after eating a meal but do not exercise vigorously. Even if a walk is not possible, try standing upright and performing tasks in the office or home to avoid being inactive after a meal.