Why Have Digestive Disorders Become More Common?
Studies suggest that digestive issues have become more prevalent. According to research involving participants from 33 countries, around 40% of people have a gastrointestinal disorder. Numbers are increasing globally, but why have digestive conditions become more common, and what can be done to lower risks?
What are digestive disorders?
Digestive disorders, also known as gastrointestinal conditions and gut disorders, affect the digestive system, the mechanism that is responsible for breaking down and processing the foods we consume. The digestive system comprises the gastrointestinal tract, the liver, the pancreas, and the gallbladder. The GI tract is made up of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, and anus. As food moves through the digestive system, the body takes out nutrients, converts food into energy, and passes through waste products. If elements of the digestive system are not working properly, this can trigger symptoms.
There are two main types of digestive disorders: functional and structural gastrointestinal diseases. Functional diseases occur when the physical system is in good working order, but the individual experiences symptoms, which may be caused by issues that affect the nervous system, such as stress. Examples include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and acid reflux. Structural gastrointestinal diseases occur when there is a physical abnormality or anomaly within the system, for example, a blockage, inflammatory bowel disease, or bowel cancer.
Examples of common digestive disorders include:
- IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
- IBD (inflammatory bowel disease)
- Crohn's disease
- LPR (laryngopharyngeal reflux) disease
- GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)
Symptoms of digestive disorders include:
- Stomach pain and cramps
- Acid reflux
How common are digestive diseases?
Digestive disorders affect up to 40% of the population in some countries. Studies show that the proportion of people with gut diseases is highest in Western countries. However, figures are increasing in other parts of the world, including Asia and Africa. In the US, common digestive diseases, such as GERD disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and functional constipation, account for over 3 million hospitalizations per year and they are a leading cause of work absences. A report compiled by United European Gastroenterology shows that a million people die from digestive disorders across Europe every year. In many countries, including the UK and Scandinavia, inflammatory bowel conditions, including Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease, have become much more prevalent in the last 30 years.
Rates of digestive disorders are expected to increase significantly in parts of Asia and Africa in the next 15 years. By 2035, rates could double in North Africa and the Middle East, and in India, numbers are expected to quadruple.
Why have digestive disorders become more common?
There are multiple reasons why digestive disorders have become more common, but research indicates that there are two key factors that have driven rates up. These include diet and stress.
Over the centuries, our diets have changed, and today, we consume more processed foods, refined sugars, and modified foods. The modern diet in countries like the US often lacks key nutrients and 95% of adults don’t consume enough fiber. Fiber is essential for good gut health and is found in whole-grain cereals, bread, rice and pasta, leafy green vegetables, fruit, and pulses. A lack of fiber increases the risk of constipation, IBS, diverticulitis, heart disease, and some types of cancer, most notably, bowel cancer.
Stress is another contributing factor. High levels of stress can cause a wide range of symptoms. In some people, stress can slow the digestive process down, increasing the risk of constipation, abdominal pain, and bloating. In others, it can speed the process up, resulting in diarrhea. In individuals who have IBS, stress usually exacerbates symptoms. Stress can also make symptoms of stomach ulcers worse. There are multiple causes of stress, including financial pressures, work-related stress, family and relationship problems, a lack of time and being too busy, and health, political, and economic issues. In recent years, stress levels have risen due to the pandemic, conflict in Ukraine, and other global events that have caused uncertainty and anxiety. According to the American Institute of Stress, 55% of US adults experience stress daily.
Trends in countries in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific underline the impact of diet. As the Western diet becomes more popular, rates of digestive disorders are rising.
What can be done to lower risks?
Many cases of digestive diseases are preventable. People can take very simple steps to boost gut health and lower the risk of gastrointestinal conditions, including:
- Staying hydrated
Hydration is essential for good gut health. Dehydration is a common cause of constipation, as it causes food to move through the digestive system slowly. Experts recommend drinking at least 2 liters of water per day. Fluid intake should align with losses through sweating. If you have been training, for example, or it’s a hot day, you will need to increase your intake of water.
- Monitoring fiber intake
Only 5% of US adults consume enough fiber. Monitor your fiber intake using a food diary app. If you are not getting enough fiber, increase your intake of fiber-rich foods, such as fruit, vegetables, pulses, and whole-grain pasta, rice, and cereals.
- Follow a healthy eating plan
A poor diet is the most common cause of digestive disorders. Following a healthy eating plan can help to lower risks and reduce the severity of symptoms. Adding supplements and probiotics can also help.
- Seek expert advice
Many people experience symptoms, such as diarrhea, bloating, or constipation without having a digestive disorder. Occasional bouts of symptoms are often linked to the types of foods we eat, stress, or short-term illnesses. In most cases, symptoms subside without the need for intervention or treatment. If symptoms persist or get worse, it’s critical to seek expert advice. The sooner digestive diseases are diagnosed, the better. There are treatments and self-help techniques that can be used to prevent or manage symptoms.
- Exercise regularly
Experts recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.
Digestive disorders have become more prevalent in the last thirty years. This is largely due to changes in our diets and high levels of stress. To lower risks, it’s beneficial to manage stress, follow a healthy, balanced diet plan, exercise regularly, and seek professional advice.
(Disclaimer: Devdiscourse's journalists were not involved in the production of this article. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)