Understanding Gastrointestinal Disorders: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

The digestive system is essentially a complex network that plays a role in multiple digestive tasks, from breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, and eliminating waste. When any part of this system malfunctions in the slightest, it can lead to a range of Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders. GI disorders comprise a wide range of conditions that affect the entirety of the digestive tract, from the mouth all the way to the anus. 

GI disorders are also prevalent globally, affecting approximately 40 percent of the entire global population. While in Australia, specifically, the prevalence rate is also high, affecting around 20 to 30 percent of the population, according to one report.

These specific disorders can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life, leading to discomfort, pain, and various complications in the digestive areas. Understanding these conditions in detail is important for effective management and treatment in the future.

Common Gastrointestinal Disorders

There is a catalogue of GI disorders that can affect the digestive system as a whole, with its different characterisations and classifications. Here are some of the most common GI disorders that may cause negative effects towards the digestive tract:

The most common gastrointestinal disorders: IBS, IBD, GERD and many more
The Most Common Gastrointestinal Disorders
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
    IBS is a functional GI disorder (FGID), which is characterised by multiple symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and altered bowel habits. The exact cause of IBS is relatively unknown, but it is believed to be related to a combination of abnormal GI tract movements, increased gut sensitivity, and brain-gut interaction.
    You can find out more about IBS through this article.
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
    IBD is an umbrella term for chronic inflammatory conditions of the GI tract, primarily Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. These conditions are autoimmune in nature, where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the GI tract, leading to inflammation, ulcers, and other complications.
    You can find out more information about some of the conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and also the similarities and differences between the two conditions through this article.
  • Gastro-Oesophageal Reflux Disease (GORD/GERD)
    GERD occurs when stomach acid frequently flows back into the oesophagus, which is also known as acid reflux, causing irritation mostly in the oesophageal areas. Some of the most common symptoms of GERD include heartburn, regurgitation, and difficulty of swallowing. If left untreated, GERD can lead to more serious conditions, thus the importance of treatment of this condition as soon as possible.
  • Celiac Disease
    Although considered as an autoimmune disorder, celiac disease can also damage the digestive tract due to the ingestion of gluten in the small intestine. This affects nutrient absorption and can cause various symptoms such as diarrhoea, weight loss, and malnutrition.
  • Peptic Ulcers
    Peptic ulcers can be described as open sores that are developed on the inner lining of the stomach and the upper part of the small intestine. They are predominantly caused by Helicobacter pylori (H.pylori) infection or a long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Causes of Gastrointestinal Disorders

The causes of GI disorders are ultimately diverse, depending on the specific conditions that you may experience. However, some of the causes that may included in common cases of GI disorders are included, as follows:

  • Genetic predisposition: One research has suggested that genetics play a significant role in increasing the risk of GI disorder, specifically IBD. However, the research also suggested that a change in lifestyle, such as an increase of cigarette and alcohol consumption, also increases the susceptibility of IBD.
  • Psychological Stress: One study has suggested that stress also plays a part in functional GI disorders (FGIDs) by triggering various responses within the digestive areas, including changes in the gastric secretion, gut motility, and mucosal permeability. Stress is proven to cause a number of GI disorders, such as IBS, IBD, and peptic ulcers.
  • Microbiota Imbalances: A study has correlated that changes in the gut microbiota biodiversity, which is often referred to as “dysbiosis”, causes an array of the GI disorders such as IBS and also IBD.

Symptoms of Gastrointestinal Disorders

Symptoms of GI disorders can vary widely depending on the specific condition, but some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain and cramping: Abdominal pain and cramping are common symptoms of GI disorders, which can range from mild discomfort to severe pain. The pain can be localised or diffuse and may be accompanied by cramping, caused by multiple GI disorders such as IBS, IBD, and peptic ulcers.

  • Diarrhoea or constipation: Both diarrhoea and constipation is caused by inconsistent bowel movements, characterised by loose, watery stool for diarrhoea and difficulty in emptying stools for constipation. GI disorders such as IBS can be the catalyst of this symptom.
  • Heartburn and acid reflux: Heartburn can be defined as a burning sensation in the chest area which radiates toward the mouth, as a result of acid reflux, a feeling of sour or acidic taste inside your mouth, with or without regurgitation through the oesophagus area. Both heartburn and acid reflux are considered as the main catalysts of GI disorder such as GERD.
  • Blood in stool: This specific symptom can occur as bright red blood stools known as hematochezia, or dark, tarry stools known as melena, which indicates that there is bleeding within the GI tract.
  • Unintentional weight loss: Unintentional weight loss can be described as the loss of weight without even trying, which can be caused by malabsorption, increased metabolic demands, or decreased appetite by GI disorders such as Crohn’s disease and celiac disease.
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Conventional Treatments and Medicines

Lifestyle and Dietary Changes

For many GI disorders, a significant change in dietary and lifestyle habits within your routines can be the first line of treatment. This can include:

  • Fibre-based diets: A diet rich in fibre can help regulate bowel movements, prevent constipation, and maintain a healthy gut microbiome, eventually reducing symptoms of multiple GI disorders. You can start incorporating fibre-rich foods such as grains, fruits, and vegetables into your diet to reduce the risks of GI disorders.
  • Avoiding trigger foods: Trigger foods such as caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods can cause negative effects in the digestive tracts by increasing acid production within the stomach, irritating the stomach lining, and exacerbating symptoms of GERD. So, detecting and also avoiding these trigger foods can be the safest bet for your gut health.
  • Regular exercises: Regular physical activities over a period of time, such as walking, jogging, cycling, or even swimming, can promote healthy digestion and improve overall GI tract function, from enhancing gut motility, reducing inflammation, and improving mental health that can be the catalyst of GI symptoms.
  • Stress Reductions: Doing a couple of meditating practices that may reduce and manage stress, such as Yoga & Tai Chi, deep breathing exercises, or mindfulness meditation, can reduce the risks of exacerbating symptoms of GI disorders.
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Medications

Besides changes in lifestyle and other types of treatments, there are also several medications available to manage GI disorders, which as follows:

  • Antacids and H2 blockers: Both antacids and H2 blockers are among the common medications used to treat a number of GI disorders. Antacids function to come into function by neutralising the acid inside the stomach, while H2 blockers function by reducing the production of stomach acid, resulting in a long-lasting relief. Both of these medications reduce some of the symptoms of GI disorders such as heartburn.

  • Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs): PPIs help minimise the symptoms of GI disorders by reducing stomach acid production, commonly used for GERD and peptic ulcers. In comparison to antacids and also H2 blockers, PPIs function with more efficacy than both medications.

  • Antispasmodics: Some antispasmodic medications such as alverine citrate, mebeverine, otilonium bromide, pinaverium bromide and phloroglucinol, are widely used in therapy for IBS. One study has proven that these medications help reduce the symptom of hypersensitivity commonly found in IBS diagnosis.

  • Surgery: While for severe cases, surgical intervention may be necessary, albeit the last line option, for treating conditions such as IBD and peptic ulcer disease. Surgical interventions can include resection of diseased bowel segments, repair of perforations, or removal of obstructions.

  • Cannabinoids: Cannabinoids, which are the compounds found in the cannabis plant, have gained attention for their potential therapeutic benefits in treating GI disorders. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays a significant role in regulating various physiological processes, including appetite, pain sensation, and immune response, making it a target for GI treatments.

One study has tested the usage of cannabinoids towards patients who have IBD, and despite positive results within the study, it is not conclusive enough to prove that the usage of cannabinoids is efficient enough as a treatment of GI disorders.

While there is more anecdotal evidence and preliminary studies which suggest  cannabinoids may be beneficial for treating GI disorders, it requires a thorough consultation with a medical expert to consider using this specific approach.

Conclusion

Gastrointestinal disorders are complex and multifaceted, affecting millions worldwide. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and conventional treatments is crucial for effective management. Additionally, the emerging role of cannabinoids offers a promising avenue for treatment, particularly in managing pain, inflammation, and other debilitating symptoms.

While more research is needed to fully understand the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids, current evidence suggests they could be a valuable addition to the treatment arsenal for GI disorders. Patients interested in exploring cannabinoid-based treatments should consult with their healthcare provider to ensure safe and effective use tailored to their specific conditions.

With ongoing research and advancements in both conventional and cannabinoid-based treatments, there is hope for improved quality of life for those suffering from gastrointestinal disorders.

Written by

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

Written by

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

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