Digestive Problems: An Overview

Everything you need to know, whether you're having difficulty going to the toilet, going too frequently, or experiencing nausea and vomiting.

What are digestive problems?

Digestive problems are any symptoms or conditions that disrupt or outright prevent the body from normal digestion – that is, absorbing essential nutrients and removing waste from the body.

Ranging from food intolerances to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heartburn to vomiting and diarrhoea, ‘digestive problems’ is a broad term for a whole host of different health complaints.

How common are digestive problems?

According to gut, liver, intestinal and bowel research charity, Guts UK (formerly known as Core), 43% of the UK population have experienced digestive problems at some point in their lifetimes, though only 59% of those people have ever visited a doctor to discuss them.

The same report revealed the most frequently experienced digestive symptoms to be:

  • Abdominal pain (experienced in 63% of cases)
  • Diarrhoea (experienced in 55% of cases)
  • Bloating (experienced in 53% of cases)
  • Flatulence (experienced in 44% of cases)
  • Constipation (experienced in 44% of cases)

Leading research agency, Mintel, report digestive problems to be even more prevalent still – affecting as many as 86% of British adults in the past year.

What forms of digestive problem are there?

Some of the most common digestive problems found in the UK today.

When should I see a doctor with digestive problems?

Though digestive problems usually settle down of their own accord, they don’t always – and when this is the case, digestive problems can be an indicator of a bigger problem. If you have tried an over-the-counter solution for two weeks with no improvement, we recommend speaking to a doctor.

Ignore the above recommendation and see a doctor immediately if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms:

  • Blood in the stool
  • Vomiting blood
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes
  • Dramatic changes in how often you go to the toilet
  • Worsening heartburn, stomach pain or indigestion

Your digestive problem questions, answered

Illustration of a consultation between patient and doctor

Beyond descriptions of your symptoms, the doctor may potentially ask you to complete a diary of when bowel movements occur, and what form they take. This is the first line of diagnosis, understanding how your digestive problems are playing out throughout the week. From here, the doctor’s approach will be one of physical examination, gently pressing down on various parts of the abdomen to check for tenderness and swelling.

In the majority of cases, the above is enough, but MRI scans, ultrasounds, x-rays, colonoscopies and endoscopies can be used in more complicated cases to check the condition of key organs and tissues involved in digestion. Blood, urine or stool samples may also be asked for to look for evidence of infection – be it bacterial, viral or parasitic.

Recommended treatment depends entirely on the digestive problem you have. That said, there are a few steps you can take that should help alleviate some of the most common digestive problems:

  • Cut down on fatty or spicy foods, fizzy drinks, caffeine and alcohol
  • Drink more water
  • Make sure you have plenty of fibre in your diet
  • Eat and drink slowly, never rush
  • Quit smoking
  • Exercise regularly
  • Avoid lying down 2-3 hours after eating
  • Wear looser clothing

Digestive problems can be overcome with over-the-counter treatment and minor lifestyle changes. Even long term digestive problems are usually manageable with medication. As with any medical condition, speak to your doctor if you have any concerns at any point – whether you are developing symptoms for the first time, or your existing symptoms are getting worse.

Illustration of a consultation between patient and doctor