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What Are the Different Types of Digestive Disorders?

By Sandra Koehler
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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There are several different ways of categorizing digestive disorders, and a lot depends on the overarching reason for the sorting in the first place. Sometimes disorders are grouped by symptom or by treatment regimen. Perhaps most commonly they’re organized by cause, and in these instances there are three main types: disorders caused or aggravated by diet; by stress; and by disease or infection. Diagnosis isn’t always cut and dry, and people often experience symptoms stemming from several causes at once. The digestive system is somewhat sensitive, and is often prone to irritation based on problems elsewhere in the body. Treatment usually starts with a diagnosis, and from there looks to incorporate various lifestyle, dietary, or medical changes in order to cure or at least mitigate the issues.

Understanding the Digestive System Generally

Digestive disorders are ailments which disrupt the digestive process. The digestion process what causes the nutrients that come from food and fluids to be broken down into smaller molecules so they can be absorbed into the blood and carried to the cells throughout the body.

The digestive system includes the digestive tract and any organs that aid digestion, including the mouth, esophagus or throat, stomach, intestines, anus, and rectum. Digestion begins in the mouth and is completed in the small intestine. Digestive disorders typically present with a variety of symptoms. These warning signs, or indicators, are signs that something is not right within the digestive system. They can include things like heartburn, gas, bloating, stomach pain or cramps, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.

Disorders Cause by Diet

Some of the most common disorders of the digestive tract are caused, directly or indirectly, by the foods the patient is consuming. Heartburn, also known as acid reflux, is one example. It happens when the acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus, or the food pipe, and causes a burning sensation. It’s often triggered by greasy or spicy foods, particularly those eaten at bedtime or before reclining for long periods of time.

Heartburn can usually be treated with over the counter antacids. The related GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, is a chronic condition where acid reflux occurs, and this may require stronger pharmaceuticals. GERD is often aggravated by diet, but is usually caused by some abnormality or defect in the esophagus.

Diet Aggravations

GERD is sometimes also included in a separate but related branch of disorders are typically caused by something else — often a genetic predisposition or structural problem with the system generally — but are noticed and aggravated by diet. Other examples include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), also sometimes called spastic colon; Crohn’s Disease; and Celiac disease, to name a few. Dietary changes are usually how these conditions are diagnosed and treated. The things people eat often cause the worst symptoms, and staying on a certain fixed diet is usually the best way to keep flare-ups under control.

Stress-Related Complications

Stress also plays an important role in digestive health. Most people think about stress as something purely mental, but in fact it can have a profound impact on hormone and other chemical levels in the body which, when out of balance, can cause a lot of problems in places like the digestive tract. In times of high stress people often experience mild stomach upset and diarrhea due to irritations in the intestinal lining. Over prolonged periods of time, acids caused or aggravated by stress can lead to ulcers.

Ulcers are open sores in the lining of the stomach or duodenum. In addition to being painful, they can also cause a lot of damage if untreated. Sometimes medication can promote healing, usually in conjunction with stress reduction activities. In more serious cases surgery may be required.

Disease and Infection

Many of the most serious digestive disorders are caused by disease or infection, and there isn’t much people can do to avoid them. Diverticular disease, where small pockets bulge out of the colon, can cause a range of digestive problems that don’t usually respond to changes in lifestyle or diet; the same is often true for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) which, unlike IBS, almost always requires medication and potentially also surgery to correct. Ulcerative colitis is another example. This chronic condition causes spontaneous ulcers that often produce faster than standard treatments can keep up. Unlike in stress situations where patients develop one or maybe two openings, patients with the disease usually have multiple ulcers opening on a nearly constant basis.

Stomach or colorectal cancers are some of the most serious digestive problems. These can be quite aggressive and are often life threatening, though many people respond well to treatments provided the problem is caught early enough. Warning signs can include blood in the stool, severe abdominal pain, unintentional weight loss and heartburn not relieved by antacids. While these symptoms aren’t specific to cancer — they can indicate a range of digestive problems — getting help as soon as possible is usually the best way to find a solution and get a diagnosis for whatever it is that’s going on.

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