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Diagnosing Chronic Gastrointestinal Complaints

If our gastrointestinal tract is not healthy, we cannot be healthy either. This is where we digest and absorb nutrients from the food we eat, eliminate toxins, produce immune cells and house 95% of our serotonin. If things are not working well with our digestive system, we usually do not feel well.

Gastrointestinal issues play some role in almost any illness. Common gastrointestinal complaints include gas, bloating, nausea, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation, slow digestion and discomfort or pain. These can be symptomatic of many different conditions ranging in severity.

When diagnosing gastrointestinal problems, a comprehensive stool analysis should first be conducted to rule out infections as the source of the problem. Infections can be bacterial, parasitic or fungal. Once identified, they can be treated.

Other things to consider are gluten sensitivity and food allergies. Allergies to specific foods can cause many of the gastrointestinal symptoms mentioned above. Therefore, it is necessary to identify those potential allergens and remove them from the diet. Food allergy testing is one way of identifying offending foods but it may not catch everything. An allergy elimination diet that you can do at home is also an effective way to determine if you are reacting to foods. It involves removing the most common allergenic foods from your diet for three to four weeks. These foods include wheat and other gluten containing foods, soy, dairy, nuts, eggs, fish, etc. You then reintroduce them back into your diet one at a time, allowing three to four days for each food to bring on a potential reaction. If you note any reaction, whether it is in the gastrointestinal tract or elsewhere, you should avoid that food.

Sensitivity to gluten can cause many of the gastrointestinal complaints listed above as well as more systemic complaints. Paradoxically, in order to be sensitive to gluten you do not need to have celiac disease. Celiac disease is a complete intolerance to gluten, while gluten sensitivity results in a milder reaction. If you have sensitivity to gluten, you develop chronic inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract which eventually causes structural changes in the lining of the small intestine. These structural changes can lessen your ability to digest and absorb the nutrients from the food. The effects of gluten in sensitive individuals can be far-reaching, affecting many systems in their body. If gluten sensitivity is suspected, a salivary or blood test should be conducted to look for elevated antibodies against gluten or simply the patient should avoid gluten for four to six weeks to see how they feel afterwards.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a common diagnosis when other serious conditions have been ruled out. Irritable bowel syndrome is strongly linked to stress, depression or anxiety and often presents as alternating loose stools and constipation. Our second brain, so to speak, is our enteric nervous system which resides in our gastrointestinal tract and operates independently of our central nervous system. The enteric nervous system manages digestion through various proteins, neural circuitry and neurotransmitters just like our central nervous system manages the rest of our body.

Our mental and emotional health has an effect on both our nervous systems. One theory has it that irritable bowel syndrome is related to an over-abundance of serotonin in the gut. Serotonin starts the process of digestion in the small intestine, then is bound up by a serotonin binding protein and deactivated. If we are deficient in the serotonin binding protein, too much serotonin remains in the gastrointestinal tract, causing loose stools. Because of the high amount of serotonin, the receptors in the gastrointestinal tract recede, resulting in the opposite effect, which is constipation.

It should be noted here that the aforementioned digestive problems such as gastric infections and food sensitivities may contribute to the underlying cause of the irritable bowel syndrome. Chronic candida, for example, is more common than most of us realize and many patients find relief from their symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome by treating the yeast.

These are just a few considerations when assessing chronic gastrointestinal symptoms. If your symptoms are severe and persistent, it is absolutely necessary to be assessed by a gastroenterologist who can order all appropriate diagnostics.

Where to Get More Information: IFFGD