Special Health Reports

The Sensitive Gut: A guide to managing common gastrointestinal disorders

Dear Reader,

Out of sight, out of mind, your digestive system is working around the clock delivering the nutrients in food to your bloodstream. As long as the system is running smoothly, you need not think about it. Once trouble begins, however, your gut—like a squeaky wheel—suddenly demands your attention.

For some folks, symptoms such as diarrhea, gas, cramps, heartburn, indigestion, belching, bloating, and nausea are infrequent and tolerable, but many people experience them far more often. An estimated one in four people has frequent gastrointestinal problems that can severely disrupt a normal lifestyle. And the number of prescriptions for gastrointestinal medications has soared since the late 1990s, according to federal statistics.

Although the misery that such problems inflict is real, these ailments aren't usually the product of an illness in the conventional sense. Often, they are functional gastrointestinal disorders. That means, unlike—for example—ulcers or stomach cancer, they can't be attributed to any physical cause, such as a structural abnormality, hormonal changes, or infection. More than 40% of diagnoses made by gastroenterologists are for functional disorders.

However, just because doctors can't find a physical cause doesn't mean you're imagining things. The symptoms are quite real, and if they occur frequently or last more than a month, it's a good idea to seek help.

You might be relieved to know that even if your doctor can't pinpoint the cause of your symptoms, the chances are good that you can get relief. This report focuses on a number of disorders considered to be functional: reflux, functional dyspepsia, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, and excessive gas.

The good news is that our ability to treat gastrointestinal disorders continues to improve. With proper knowledge—and the support of the right combination of health professionals—you can make changes in your lifestyle, use specific medications, find other helpful therapies that will ease your discomfort, and make the right decisions about medical treatments.

Lawrence S. Friedman, M.D.
Medical Editor

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