Most everyone experiences gut symptoms from time to time.
Some symptoms are as easy to brush off as a bad night’s sleep. Have you ever eaten a big bowl of chili and experienced bloating and gas all night long, then woke up thinking, “Who doesn’t get bloating from chili?”
Other times, however, symptoms may be more worrisome, and you may wonder if they are symptoms of an unhealthy gut that warrant further investigation.
Should You Be Concerned?
Below are common gastrointestinal symptoms that I see on a regular basis, along with my advice on when—and if—you should seek medical attention.
- Sores in the mouth: Whitish or yellowish lesions inside your mouth are most often benign. Sores in the mouth have various causes, including viruses and candida overgrowth. The most common type are canker sores, which can be quite painful but usually go away on their own after a week or so. It’s not unusual to develop mouth sores on occasion, but if they persist or occur often, you may want to have them looked at.
- Difficulty swallowing: Dysphagia, as this is known in the medical world, can result from eating too quickly and or failing to chew your food properly. But it can also be a sign of other issues going on. If difficulty swallowing is happening to you on a regular basis, you should mention it to your doctor.
- Heartburn: This uncomfortable burning sensation in the chest, which usually occurs after eating or when lying down, can range from mildly annoying to significantly distressing. If it comes and goes, it’s likely a symptom of indigestion. Chronic heartburn, however, is a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). I suggest getting it checked out to assess possible causes and learn about treatment options.
- Bloating: Abdominal distention—when your belly sticks out further than usual—is generally caused by excessive production of gas in the intestinal tract. Because gas is a byproduct of the breakdown of food, bloating is most common after meals. Many foods and food intolerances as well as underlying problems can lead to excess gas and bloating. If this is causing you significant distress or embarrassment, you should try to figure out what is triggering it and treat it accordingly.
- Constipation: If you pass stools that are hard and dry or infrequent (less than once per day), you are one of the millions of people who have constipation. There are many reasons why constipation develops, including not eating enough fiber or drinking enough water. Organic causes, such as hypothyroidism and intestinal disorders, could also be the problem. If natural solutions for constipation don’t help, consult your doctor.
- Diarrhea: A similar number of Americans have the opposite problem: stools that are loose and watery or too frequent. Diarrhea is often accompanied by urgency, which can be very disruptive to your normal day-to-day routine. It may occur shortly after eating something that doesn't agree with your gut or when you are under increased stress. However, there are other potential causes that are more serious. If diarrhea persists and causes discomfort, you should mention it to your doctor.
- Hemorrhoids: For many folks, hemorrhoids are a fact of life. These swollen, inflamed veins inside or outside the anus often crop up after pregnancy or with chronic diarrhea or constipation. If hemorrhoids cause pain or bleeding on a regular basis, talk to your doctor about treatment options.
- Blood in the stool: The most obvious gut-related symptom that requires medical attention is blood in the stool. Blood can appear bright red, darker colored, tarry or look like coffee grounds, depending on how long it has traveled through the GI tract. Regardless of the presentation, blood in the stool may indicate a serious digestive problem, and you should consult your doctor ASAP.
Occasional episodes of heartburn, bloating, and other common symptoms affecting your digestive tract are nothing to worry about. However, if they are recurrent, painful, or distressing (and this includes blood in the stool), they should be brought to the attention of your doctor.
Do not ignore “minor” unhealthy gut symptoms. They may not be the most pleasant topics to discuss, but don’t let that discourage you from seeking help. Believe me, doctors have seen and heard it all.
Gut health affects whole-body health. Getting these issues under control will not only improve your digestion but also your sense of well-being, quality of life, and overall health.