Digestive problems

The main function of the digestive system is to absorb nutrients from the food we eat. The body will use vitamins, proteins, fats and calories in order to carry out various jobs around the body.

A digestive problem is a change or abnormality in the natural functioning of this process.

Digestive problems are extremely common. As many as 40% of the UK population suffer from at least one symptom of a digestive problem at any one time.

The term digestive problem covers a large variety of conditions, symptoms and diseases that affect the digestive system, from IBS and indigestion to ulceritive colitis and Crohn’s disease.

Common types of digestive problem

IBS
Crohn’s disease
Diarrhoea
Constipation

How can a nutritionist help with digestive problems?

There is a great deal of conflicting data in the media regarding food and diets. A particular diet advocated by a tabloid or magazine one day can be condemned the next. This can be confusing and frustrating for people experiencing digestive problems because for them, diet is not about vanity, it is about trying to live with uncomfortable and often debilitating conditions. People with digestive problems know that a single meal choice can completely ruin a day by inducing painful or embarrassing symptoms like abdominal cramping or diarrhoea.

A qualified nutritionist understands this volatile relationship between food and mood and will try to help sooth the symptoms of digestive problems by applying expert knowledge to the sufferer’s dietary habits. Nutritionists aim to give straightforward advice based on evidence rather than speculation.

With personalised meal plans tailored to individual tastes and requirements, consulting a nutritionist could greatly improve the day-to-day life of an individual suffering from a digestive problem.

Can digestive problems be serious?

Most digestive problems are very mild and can be cured quickly and easily with the help of a nutritionist or by taking appropriate medication.

Some digestive problems are considered to be very serious. Serious digestive problems can be diagnosed by identifying ‘red flag symptoms’. You can ask five simple questions to help identify red flag symptoms:

1)   Have you noticed a sudden and drastic change in the functioning of your bowels?

2)   Have you recently lost weight for no reason?

3)   Do you have difficulty swallowing?

4)   Have you noticed an increase in heart burn or stomach pain?

5)   Have you noticed bleeding from your back passage?

If you experience one of more of these symptoms, it is advisable to visit your GP as soon as possible.

How does the digestive system work?

Food moves through the digestive system in four main progressive stages.

1) Mouth – In the mouth, the teeth begin the digestive process by tearing and grinding solid food into sizeable pieces. Saliva then begins to break down carbohydrates such as starch.

2) Stomach - The soft mass of chewed food in the mouth is then swallowed. The eosophagus (tube leading to the stomach) squeezes the partly digested food to the stomach by contracting in a wave like motion known as peristalsis. This process takes less than 6 seconds. In the stomach, glands secrete hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes. These digestive juices break down the proteins, sugars and fats found in food. 

3) Small Intestine - The partly digested food is then squeezed from the stomach through the duodenum and into the small intestine. In the small intestine, bile from the liver begins to emulsify fat and digestive juices from the pancreas continue to digest nutrients. Villi on the wall of the small intestine increase the surface area and aid the absorption of smaller molecules into the bloodstream.

4) Large intestine - By the time the food leaves the small intestine, most of the nutrients will already have been absorbed. Next, the resulting lump of mostly digested food moves slowly through the colon. This is the last stage of absorption, leaving only a mass of fibre and bacteria. Because this mass of waste cannot be used by the body, it is finally excreted through the anus.

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