Understanding Common Digestive Problems and Simple Ways to Manage Them

Digestion problems are relatively common. For non-chronic issues, you can treat this with dietary changes, TCM herbs, and by seeing your doctor regularly.

A white woman lying on the bed while holding her stomach in pain due to digestive problems

Our digestive system plays an important role in breaking down our food and drinks into small parts. These small pieces, called nutrients, travel down our digestive tract used for building energy to our cells. When digestive problems arise in the digestive tract, often called GI issues, the body does not digest food properly. This can several cause ailments, both short-term and ongoing, such as bloating, constipation, heartburn, diarrhea, or belly pain.

This is typically related to an unhealthy lifestyle, diet, or stress. However, most people experience bouts of stomach issues or indigestion at some point in their lives. Problems arise when these issues are experienced for a long time, which might be connected to a serious condition. Read on to discover more about some common digestive problems and ways to relieve them.

Digestive Problems Symptoms

A woman touching her stomach in pain as she eats a hamburger on a street
Eating overly spicy and oily foods can cause a host of problems, ranging from heartburn to bowel issues.

Our digestive tract works, bringing our food from our mouth to the esophagus to the stomach to the small and large intestines, then to the rectum and anus. Digestive problems happen when we consume too much food, don’t eat enough fiber, eat too much dairy, eat spicy or oily foods when we’re stressed out.

Certain medications and overuse of medications, pregnancy, late-night binges, sedentary habits, and even getting out of your routine can affect your GI tract. However, digestive issues can also be connected to bigger issues. Some common digestive problems can lead to indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn, and bowel issues.

Indigestion 

Digestion is critical to delivering the nutrients from your food and drinks to your body. Indigestion, also called dyspepsia, can occur that causes pain in the stomach area.

Usually caused by overeating or over-drinking, eating too fast, or certain food that causes issues with proper digestion. They include heartburn, feeling bloated, hiccups, bad breath, excessive belching or farting, and experiencing bitter-tasting fluids near your throat. 

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the digestive system is responsible for converting food into qi and blood — an essential substance for our life. Thus, good digestion is crucial to good health. 

Irritable bowel syndrome 

Some people experience irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common digestive disorder that affects the large intestine. Stress, emotional disturbances, anxiety, and lack of sleep play a significant role in IBS that can worsen over time if not treated.

The symptoms of this disorder vary widely, and hence it is known as a syndrome rather than a disease. Common symptoms include cramping, bloating in the abdomen, excessive farting, diarrhea, and constipation. Acupuncture is frequently helpful in relieving the symptoms of IBS. 

Heartburn

Heartburn, also known as acid reflux disease, is incredibly common in the U.S. This condition feels like a burning sensation in the chest or throat as stomach acids rise in the food pipe, producing a sour taste in the mouth. These acids can irritate the lining of the stomach and food pipe. If experienced regularly, heartburn can be a symptom of GERD, related to pregnancy, or present in infants.

TCM views heartburn as an imbalance in the functions of the stomach and liver. Some supplements and herbs can treat heartburn as well as balance and improve the functions of the stomach and liver. This includes ginger, turmeric, fennel, peppermint, and rosemary.

Bowel issues

Constipation and diarrhea are digestive issues many experiences that can be both short-or-long term. In the U.S., 2.5 million experience frequent constipation, making it the most common digestive issue. These issues can be related to age, food, medications, and changes in hormone levels (for women in pregnancy). Some people with frequent diarrhea may also have to follow the BRAT diet. This includes a diet of starchy foods, such as bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast that can bind together and make the stool firm.

Other diseases

Digestive issues can also be the symptom of more serious issues, such as related to gallstones, hemorrhoids, liver failure, gastroesophageal reflux disease, polyps, and colorectal cancer. Many of these diseases are preventable and treatable when you see a doctor regularly and pay attention to any changes in your digestional tract.

Indigestion Treatment

Long-term treatment happens with lifestyle and dietary changes. This might also include controlling your stress and anxiety, avoiding certain trigger foods (oily and spicy food), reducing caffeine, or limiting certain medications. In the short term, you can use over-the-counter antacids. However, excessive intake of antacids can also harm the body.

Regular testing

A male doctor observing the abdominal area of a woman patient in the clinic
Visiting a doctor regularly is one of the best ways to address digestive problems.

Routine visits to the doctor can prevent many digestional issues. Doctors can screen for rectal cancer, take blood, or take x-rays. Older adults may also receive an endoscopy to determine any abnormalities in their upper digestive tract and colonoscopy to determine any abnormalities in the lower digestive tract.

Herbal remedies for the stomach

A dried angelica sinensis inside a ceramic white and blue bowl to treat digestive problems
Several TCM herbs like Chinese angelica can relieve abdominal pain due to heartburn

Herbal remedies can also assist stomach issues. These are safe to consume and effective and are now available in convenient pills and sachets. 

TCM practitioners suggest herbal remedies for indigestion such as Hawthorn berry (shan za), barley sprout (mai ya), rice sprout (gu ya), chicken gizzard lining (ji nei jin), Areca seed (bing lang), unripe bitter orange (zhi shi), and tangerine peel (chen pi).  

Symptoms of IBS benefit from the use of white atractylodes (bai zhu), tangerine peel, poria (fu ling), Siler root (fang feng), white peony root (bai shao), licorice root (gan cao), and dried ginger (gan jiang).  

Indigestion during pregnancy can be treated with slippery elm, peppermint. You can also make an appetite enhancement soup that contains Chinese yam (huai shan yao), lotus seed (lianzi), gordon seed (qian shi), and poria (fuling).

Additionally, you can relieve heartburn with green tea, pinellia, Chinese dates, licorice root, white peony root, white atractylodes, Hare’s ear root, Chinese angelica, poria, and fresh ginger. Besides these herbs, a classical TCM formula Xiao Yao Wan also helps relieve the symptoms.

However, you should get a prescription that’s best suited for your body from a licensed TCM practitioner. Some herbs may not be suitable for certain people. For example, consuming some herbs may cause a pregnant woman to miscarry and wean in nursing mothers.

Natural ways to relieve indigestion

A young white male drinking a bottled water during workout
Drinking water every day can help maintain a healthy GI tract and combat indigestion.

You can relieve mild episodes of indigestion without the need for medications. Below are some practices to incorporate in your life: 

  • Drink enough water. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine suggests drinking 15.5 cups for men and 11.5 cups for women
  • Drink less coffee, tea, carbonated drinks, and alcohol 
  • Consume cloves, basil, cumin, cinnamon, and ginger to aid with digestion and heal upset stomach
  • Don’t lay down if your stomach is upset
  • Try to lose weight if you are overweight 
  • Consume your last meal at least 3-4 hours before going to bed
  • Take a warm bath if stomachache arises
  • Avoid oily, creamy, acidic, spicy, and fatty foods 
  • Don’t take NSAID painkillers such as ibuprofen, diclofenac, aspirin, etc. They can worsen the symptoms of indigestion and even cause ulcers in the stomach 
  • Avoid smoking cigarettes 

Though the symptoms of indigestion may be relieved by popping an antacid, it is easy to fall into a vicious cycle. Instead, adopt a healthy and balanced diet, adapt your lifestyle, use TCM principles, and see your doctor regularly to prevent digestive disorders. 

This is an adaptation of an article, “TCM Perspective – Indigestion”, which first appeared on Eu Yan Sang website.

References

  1. Cleveland Clinic. 2021. Gastrointestinal Diseases. [Accessed on December, 6 2021]  
  2. Medline Plus. 2021. Digestive diseases. [Accessed on December, 6 2021]  
  3. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. 2017. Your Digestive System & How it Works. [Accessed on December, 6 2021]  
  4. Mayo Clinic. 2021. Indigestion. [Accessed on December, 6 2021]  
  5. Mayo Clinic. 2021. Irritable Bowl Syndrome. [Accessed on December, 6 2021]  
  6. Cleveland Clinic. 2020. Heartburn. [Accessed on December, 6 2021]  
  7. Cleveland Clinic. 2020. Constipation. [Accessed on December, 6 2021]  
  8. Medical News Today. 2020. Home and natural remedies for upset stomach. [Accessed on December, 6 2021]  
  9. Mayo Clinic. 2021. Irritable Bowl Syndrome. [Accessed on December, 6 2021]  

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