- Gastrointestinal (GI) diseases can be acute or chronic and can occur anywhere along the GI tract due to problems with infection, inflammation, or the immune system.
- If you have concerning GI symptoms, like recurrent nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, or constipation, talk to your doctor about finding the underlying cause so that you can receive the correct treatment.
- Medical and nutritional management varies for each condition, making it important to follow the advice of your care team.
Over 60 million people in the United States have a disease impacting the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, ranging from viral infections, like the stomach flu, to chronic conditions, like celiac disease.
The GI tract starts in the mouth and includes your esophagus, stomach, intestines, and rectum. GI conditions can impact different parts of the digestive system, causing symptoms like nausea, vomiting, pain, diarrhea, or constipation.
Though there is lots of advice online on healing your gut, it’s best to first talk with a doctor about your symptoms to identify the underlying cause. This article will summarize the different GI diseases along with options for diagnosis, treatment, and nutritional management.
Working with a registered dietitian can be beneficial if you’ve been diagnosed with a GI disease. Try Nourish to be connected with an online dietitian specializing in digestive conditions.
How to Heal Your Gut from Gastrointestinal Diseases
If you have chronic or acute digestive symptoms, you may suspect you have a gastrointestinal (GI) disease. A wide range of GI conditions can be the underlying cause of your symptoms, so the first step is to talk to your doctor.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to gut health, and each condition requires different medical and nutritional treatments. Once you have a diagnosis from your doctor, you can seek the proper treatment to heal your gut and improve your symptoms.
If you experience GI symptoms occasionally and you’ve ruled out digestive diseases with your doctor, you may want to talk to a registered dietitian about general strategies for improving gut health.
For example, a Mediterranean eating pattern has been linked with increased amounts of beneficial bacteria, while the typical Western diet may contribute to the growth of harmful bacteria. In addition to your overall eating pattern, adding prebiotic and probiotic foods into your diet can also help improve your balance of gut bacteria.
What is Gastrointestinal Disease?
When your gastrointestinal (GI) tract is functioning properly, your digestive organs, gut bacteria, nerves, and hormones work together to break down the food you eat into nutrients for your body to use. Gastrointestinal disease happens when part of this system is not working how it should.
Disorders of the GI tract can occur due to factors such as infection, inflammation, or immune dysfunction. They typically result in noticeable symptoms that may come on quickly or happen over time. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about any of the following symptoms:
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Stomach or abdominal pain.
The Different Types of Gastrointestinal Diseases
Since the gastrointestinal (GI) tract includes many organs, it can be affected by a wide range of conditions. Upper GI diseases affect the esophagus and stomach, while lower GI conditions involve the small intestine, large intestine, and rectum.
Some GI diseases can impact the entire digestive tract, such as:
- Gastrointestinal bleeding.
- Food poisoning.
- Dumping syndrome.
- Food intolerances, such as lactose intolerance.
- Viral gastroenteritis (“stomach flu.”)
GI diseases can also be classified as chronic or acute. Chronic conditions may require ongoing treatment and, in some cases, do not have a cure. An example of this is celiac disease, which requires a lifelong avoidance of gluten to manage.
Acute GI disorders are usually short-term problems that can resolve with treatment, such as the stomach flu or a case of food poisoning.
Upper GI Diseases
Here are some common upper gastrointestinal diseases:
- Acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
- Barrett’s esophagus.
- Peptic ulcer disease.
- Indigestion or dyspepsia.
Lower GI Diseases
Some examples of lower gastrointestinal conditions include:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS.)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
- Celiac disease.
- Diverticular disease.
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO.)
- Short bowel syndrome.
- Chronic constipation.
- Chronic diarrhea.
How to Diagnose GI Disease
The first step in diagnosing a GI disease is to make an appointment to discuss your symptoms with your primary care doctor. Since many digestive tract conditions have overlapping symptoms, it’s important to rule out more serious conditions before starting treatment.
Your doctor will likely order some diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause of your symptoms. The tests might involve a blood draw, X-ray, or insertion of a camera to visualize your GI tract.
In some cases, your doctor may refer you to meet with a gastroenterologist (GI specialist) to treat and manage your condition. For chronic GI diseases, this may be an ongoing process. In certain acute digestive illnesses, your doctor may ask you to go to the emergency room.
Medical treatment of GI diseases varies greatly depending on which part of the digestive tract is impacted and whether the condition is chronic or acute.
For example, if you have an acute GI disease, like the stomach flu, you may be prescribed a short-term medication to manage your symptoms until the virus is out of your system.
With chronic conditions like Crohn’s disease, you’ll likely have regular follow-up appointments with your GI specialist to discuss treatment options like medication, surgery, and dietary modifications. You may also get information about participating in clinical trials to help test new treatments that may improve your quality of life.
Nutritional Support and Lifestyle Changes
Like medical treatments, dietary interventions vary based on the specific GI disorder. Certain foods and drinks might aggravate your symptoms when your digestive tract isn’t working properly.
For example, people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a chronic condition characterized by abdominal pain and abnormal bowel movements, may benefit from a low FODMAP diet that minimizes certain types of carbohydrates and sugars.
On the other hand, people with diverticulosis typically need a high-fiber diet, while those with a diverticulitis flare-up should limit fiber.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a GI condition, consider booking an appointment with a dietitian through Nourish to help you manage your symptoms and navigate your food triggers.
Finding Support for GI Disease
If you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic gastrointestinal disease, it’s important to assemble a care team you trust, including your primary care doctor, a GI specialist, and a registered dietitian. Your healthcare team will communicate with you and each other to optimize your treatment and ensure you feel supported.
It can be challenging to experience long-term GI symptoms because it can start to impact your quality of life. Some clinics and organizations host support groups for people with specific digestive diseases. This can be a great way to feel less alone in your treatment journey.
Tips for Healing from Gastrointestinal Disease
The best way to promote gastrointestinal disease healing is to regularly follow up with your care team, letting them know which treatments make you feel better or worse. This can help them adjust your plan to achieve the best results.
You may also want to keep a written log to monitor your symptoms, the foods you eat, and any medications you take. If you have ongoing symptoms, this can help you find trends and give clues about what might not be working for you.
It can be beneficial to ask your doctor about the long-term implications of your GI condition. Is it something that has a cure, or will it require lifelong management? Understanding this will help you set your expectations for treatment.
Numerous gastrointestinal disorders can cause chronic or acute symptoms like nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, and constipation. Since these conditions have different underlying causes and impact various parts of the GI tract, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to diagnosis and treatment.
Though there are general gut health tips you can follow, it’s best to first talk to your doctor to rule out an underlying GI disease. You may need to undergo some testing to get a proper diagnosis. Then, you can begin treatment to help you improve your symptoms and quality of life.
How a Dietitian Can Help
A registered dietitian can be a valuable part of the care team because there are different nutritional guidelines to manage each GI condition, and sometimes these change over the course of treatment.
In addition, some GI diseases, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), require elimination diets that can be challenging to follow. A dietitian can help you safely and effectively implement these dietary changes for you to have the best results.
To speak with a registered dietitian specializing in gastrointestinal conditions, consider Nourish. We’ll match you with an online gut health dietitian who will coordinate with your care team to individualize your treatment approach.
Nourish accepts most major insurance plans, with 94% of patients paying $0 out of pocket.
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