The digestive system is a pretty incredible thing. A healthy digestive system enables us to break down the food and drinks we consume, extract the nutrients from that food, absorb those nutrients and send them around the body, and remove leftover waste. Your digestive tract includes the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small and large intestine, and the anus. The digestive system also includes various organs such as the pancreas, gallbladder, and liver.
As Dietitians, it’s important that we ask clients about any digestive symptoms they might be experiencing. This includes their bowel habits. Why? Because symptoms, mild or major, can provide us with insight into how the digestive system is functioning. Symptoms such as nausea, reflux, excessive gas and painful bloating indicate something isn’t quite right. Similarly, knowing how often someone passes a bowel movement, the texture, and whether there is anything in there (e.g. undigested food, blood, mucus, fat), can tell us whether there are any digestive complications present.
Most people will experience digestive symptoms at some stage throughout their lives. Housemate undercooked the chicken at dinner? Hello diarrhoea and vomiting. Not eating your veggies and keeping hydrated? Cue the constipation. A few too many cocktails and a spicy kebab on the way home? Get ready for reflux. In some situations, digestive symptoms will have a simple explanation and will resolve in due course either with time or with lifestyle adjustments. There are, however, some symptoms that should never be ignored and may be a sign of something more serious. This may include conditions such as Coeliac Disease, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (which includes Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis) or Bowel Cancer. It is important these conditions are ruled out before undertaking any sort of elimination diet.
Here are 4 red flags that you should always have investigated:
1. Blood. See your doctor promptly if you notice any blood on your toilet paper or in your bowel movements.
2. Changes in bowel habits. Any sudden or persistent changes in your bowel habits should be investigated. Speak with your doctor and your Dietitian. This could include changes to urgency, an increase or decrease in frequency, or changes in texture. What’s normal? It can vary from person to person. The key thing here is a change in what’s normal for you.
3. New or worsening symptoms. For example, diarrhoea, constipation, excessive bloating, pain anywhere in your digestive tract, or reflux – anything that isn’t normal for you.
4. Loss of weight. Any unintentional or rapid loss of weight should be investigated with your doctor and Dietitian.
Get to know your digestive system and symptoms, and if something doesn’t seem right, always trust your gut and get checked.