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5 Common Digestive Disorders

When it comes to the human body, one of the most sensitive components is the digestive system. It's easily upset by disease, emotional factors, and even malfunctions in other parts of the body. According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, around 70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases. Here are five of the most common disorders that can threaten your digestive health.

Celiac Disease

This autoimmune disorder affects around 1 percent of people globally, according to Genetics Home Reference. It's an abnormal sensitivity to gluten, a protein in wheat, barley, and rye. Signs include:

The inflammation it causes carries a risk of some gastrointestinal cancers. While celiac disease tends to cluster in families, experts have found no inheritance pattern. Diagnosis follows blood tests and/or tissue biopsy. Treatment consists of following a strict, gluten-free diet.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

IBS primarily affects patients between ages 35 and 50, says the National Institutes of Health. It strikes 1 out of every 5 women, and around 1 in 10 men.

While not dangerous, it causes significant pain/cramping. Both diarrhea and constipation are common. Less common are excessive gas, feeling overly full, and mucus discharge.

Doctors diagnose IBS after ruling out other conditions like food intolerance. The illness affects how food moves through the large intestine and is characterized by periodic flares. Finding an effective treatment is difficult because no cause has been pinpointed. Some doctors advise patients to eat more fiber, take anti-cramping medications, and avoid stress.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

Unlike IBS, with which it's often confused, IBD is an umbrella for some serious digestive illnesses. The main disorders are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. They affect around 1.4 million Americans, according to the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America.

Researchers have found no specific cause of IBD but suspect a combination of a faulty immune system, genetics, and environmental factors. While Crohn's occurs anywhere in the digestive tract and is incurable, ulcerative colitis develops only in the colon and is cured by removing it.

Major symptoms of both illnesses include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Urgency to move bowels

Diagnostic tools include blood tests and radiographic studies. Treatment includes medications ranging from anti-inflammatory drugs to immunosuppressants, dietary changes to reduce symptoms, and surgery. Neither stress nor a specific food causes IBD.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

More than 30 million Americans have been diagnosed with GERD. The most common symptom is heartburn that climbs from the stomach to the throat or middle of the chest.

GERD occurs when a one-way valve known as the lower esophageal sphincter doesn't close correctly, allowing digestive juices plus stomach contents to travel up the esophagus. The condition even affects infants. Doctors sometimes need to perform an endoscopic exam to diagnose it.

Untreated GERD can lead to more serious conditions. Treatment consists primarily of dietary changes, over-the-counter antacids or reflux drugs, and/or prescription medications.


This is a condition that slows or inhibits the stomach's ability to empty its contents, also known as delayed gastric emptying. It typically affects more women than men, though the reason being is unknown.

Most people with this condition have not been diagnosed with a known cause, despite medical tests; this is called idiopathic gastroparesis. For those with an identifiable cause, diabetes is the most common culprit. High levels of blood glucose in diabetics over time can damage the vagus nerve, which controls the stomach muscles and movement of food through the digestive tract. Gastroparesis can affect those with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Among the other identifiable causes are intestinal surgery and diseases of the nervous system, like Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. The most common symptoms of gastroparesis include:

  • Nausea
  • Feeling full after consuming a small amount of food
  • Heartburn
  • Abdominal bloating

In most cases, gastroparesis is a chronic, incurable condition. However, a combination of nutritional changes and medication can help manage the severity of symptoms.

The best way to minimize how these five disorders threaten your digestive health is to learn their major symptoms and promptly report any that appear to your doctor.

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