Understanding Digestion Problems

What Are Digestion Problems?

The digestive system is an intricate and extensive part of the body. It ranges all the way from the mouth to the rectum. The digestive system is responsible for getting rid of waste and helps your body absorb essential nutrients.

Did You Know?
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), digestive diseases affect between 60 and 70 million Americans.

Digestion problems can mean more than unwanted, embarrassing symptoms. Minor problems that are left untreated can lead to more serious, chronic illnesses.

Because there are so many different types of digestion problems, you might mistakenly dismiss them. It’s important to understand common digestion problems — as well as emergency symptoms — so you know when to talk to a doctor.

Chronic Constipation

Ongoing (chronic) constipation indicates a problem with getting rid of waste. This most often occurs when the colon can’t pass or move stools through the rest of the digestive tract. You may experience abdominal pain and bloating as well as fewer bowel movements that are more painful than usual.

Did You Know?
The NIDDK reports that it affects about 63 million people and was responsible for 132 deaths in 2010.

Chronic constipation is one of the most common digestive problems in the United States. Getting enough fiber, water, and exercise will likely help curb constipation. Medications can also provide relief in more serious cases.

Food Intolerance

Food intolerance occurs when your digestive system can’t tolerate certain foods. Unlike food allergies, which can cause hives and respiratory problems, an intolerance only affects digestion.

Symptoms of food intolerance include:

  • bloating and/or cramps
  • diarrhea
  • headache
  • heartburn
  • irritability
  • gas
  • vomiting

Food intolerance is usually diagnosed by using a food diary. Recording what you eat and when can help you identify which foods are triggering your symptoms.

Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder, is one type of food intolerance. It causes digestive problems when you eat gluten, a protein in wheat, barley, and rye. People with celiac disease must follow a gluten-free diet to minimize symptoms and damage to the small intestine.


Heartburn is an occasional occurrence for many adults. This happens when stomach acids go back up into the esophagus, causing chest pain and the trademark burning sensation.

Did You Know?
About 20 percent of adults with GERD experience reflux at least once a week.

If you have more frequent heartburn, you might have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Such frequent episodes can interfere with your daily life and damage your esophagus.

Symptoms of GERD include:

  • chest discomfort
  • dry cough
  • sour taste in the mouth
  • sore throat
  • swallowing difficulties

You may need medications to control heartburn. A damaged esophagus can make swallowing difficult, and disrupt the rest of the digestive system.


Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a type of chronic swelling. It affects one of more parts of the digestive tract.

There are two types of IBD:

  • Crohn’s disease: affects the gastrointestinal (GI) tract
  • ulcerative colitis: inflammation of the colon

IBD can cause more general digestive ailments, such as abdominal pain and diarrhea. Other symptoms can include:

  • fatigue
  • incomplete bowel movements
  • loss of appetite and subsequent weight loss
  • night sweats
  • rectal bleeding

It’s important to diagnosis and treat IBD as soon as possible. Not only will you be more comfortable, but early treatment also reduces damage to the GI tract.

Possible Serious Conditions

A gastroenterologist is a type of doctor that specializes in diagnosing and treating diseases involving the digestive system. If you continue to experience digestion problems, it’s time to make an appointment.

More serious signs could mean an emergency medical problem. Those signs include:

  • bloody stools
  • continuous vomiting
  • severe abdominal cramps
  • sweating
  • sudden, unintentional weight loss

These symptoms could be an indication of an infection, gallstones, hepatitis, internal bleeding, or cancer.


You may be able to overcome digestion problems with treatment and lifestyle changes. Certain diseases of the digestive system might be long-term, but medications can help alleviate symptoms.

Identifying specific digestion problems and talking with a gastroenterologist can go a long way in terms of helping your doctor give you a proper diagnosis. Remember, you don’t have to put up with constant digestive issues. 

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