Digestive issues are no fun, especially when it results in rapid retreats to a restroom or mind-bending gas. While some digestive issues are really no big deal from a medical standpoint, there are some that do warrant medical attention. Here are some of the more common symptoms of early digestive problems for women.
Our complex digestive system
According to Dr. Rudolph Bedford, a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, our digestive system encompasses a lot more than just our stomach and eliminating the waste from what we eat. "Digestive disorders can occur anywhere from the top of our esophagus right down to the colon, so you can only imagine the many problems that can occur," he says.
Dr. Tara Troy, a gastroenterologist at Northwestern Medicine in the Chicago area agrees, and while she says everyone should expect some variety from their gastrointestinal tract, there are certain signs that can be a little more concerning than others.
The most common signs of digestive problems can include:
- Intestinal cramping
These may not be worrisome, however. "Changes in diet, eating and exercise patterns, weight fluctuations, stress levels, travel, medications and hormonal fluctuations can all impact your gut function," says Troy. "Occasional symptoms of heartburn, belching, nausea, abdominal discomfort, increased gas or bloating or short-lived diarrhea or constipation are common." However, she explains that you should take note of changes from your "normal" that persist or recur.
Other early signs of digestive issues that may not be quite as obvious (but can be equally troublesome) can include:
- Excessive belching
- Excessive throat clearing
- Sore throat unrelated to an infection
- Difficulty swallowing solids or liquids
- Esophageal pain
- Bloating or flatulence
- Partially digested food in the stool or oily stools
- Change in bowel habits
- Pale-colored stools
- Dark urine
- Loss of appetite
- Unintentional weight loss
- Joint pain or stiffness
Digestive problem causes
While there are a number of different disease processes that can trigger digestive woes, here are some that you might want to investigate if it sounds like your symptoms match up.
Functional GI conditions: Including irritable bowel syndrome, functional GI conditions affect 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population and are far more common in women, says Troy. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, cramping or bloating that is at least partially relieved by going No. 2; excess gas; diarrhea or constipation; or mucus in the stool.
Gastrointestinal infections: Gastroenteritis — otherwise known as the "stomach flu" — is pretty awful for all involved, but fortunately, it usually passes on its own without serious complications. Viral gastroenteritis is actually the second-most common illness in the U.S. However, if you can't keep fluids down for a full 24 hours or if you're seeing blood (either in the vomit or your stool), have signs of dehydration or are running a fever, you'll need to be seen by a doctor.
Constipation: Constipation is miserable, but if it becomes an ongoing issue, you'll want to get yourself in to be seen. "Chronic constipation is several days without a normal bowel movement. You may find your bowels are hard, you are sitting there pushing and you're rarely going at all," explains Bedford.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease: Also known as GERD, this is a digestive disorder that can lead to serious health problems if left untreated. Symptoms can start slow and can include heartburn, chest pain, difficulty swallowing, regurgitation of food or sour liquid or a lump in your throat.
"This common digestive disorder occurs when acid from the stomach enters the esophagus because the lower part of it — the esophagus sphincter — relaxes at the wrong time," Bedford says. "GERD is quite serious and may lead to esophagus cancer."
Gallstones: Gallstones are awful little jerks that are the product of cholesterol and bile and are unfortunately more common in women. They can result in infection, irritation and inflammation, all of which can be painful. "Pain can be sudden, and you will feel it most in your right upper abdomen or between the shoulder blades," says Bedford. "Severe pain may also be linked with nausea and vomiting."
Peptic ulcer disease: This is another not-fun digestive disorder that can start off as random abdominal pain. Bedford notes that ulcers are commonly caused by H. pylori, a type of bacteria, and it disrupts the protective layer within the stomach, which leads to painful ulcers.
Diverticulitis: This potentially serious condition is signified by inflammation or infection of the small bulging pouches along the lining of the digestive system, most often in the lower part of the large intestine. It can be mild or symptomless, but Bedford notes that it can lead to pain, fever, constipation or diarrhea.
Pancreatitis: According to Bedford, symptoms of pancreatitis can include abdominal pain, pain that travels to the back, abdominal pain that worsens after a meal, nausea, vomiting, unintentional weight loss and tenderness of the abdomen. Treatment often includes a brief hospitalization.
While some tummy troubles are short-lived, others, particularly those problems that tend to recur, warrant a visit to a health care provider. Of course, this list is not exhaustive, and if you have any concerns, don't hesitate to bring them up to your doctor.