The last few decades have seen a significant shift in our lifestyle. The way we live has become more sedentary, and with easy access to junk food in a fast-paced lifestyle – digestive problems in India are on the rise. Anything that changes or affects the natural food habits and physical activities can lead to digestive diseases.

Irregular and unhealthy food habits, bad lifestyle habits like alcohol consumption,  smoking, tobacco chewing, lack of exercise and unclean water, and sanitation are the main factors responsible for increasing India’s digestive problems.

Symptoms like loss of appetite, constipation, frequent heartburn, weight loss, and difficulty swallowing, might require a visit to a gastroenterologist, a specialist in digestive diseases. If you are 50 years and above, it is recommended to get screened for colorectal cancer regularly. 

If you are experiencing mild symptoms that do not hamper your daily activities, you should visit a general physician or your family doctor for a quick check-up. Your GP will help you understand whether you need to consult a gastroenterologist.

Who is a Gastroenterologist?

A Gastroenterologist is a physician who specialises in treating diseases which affect the gastrointestinal tract (organs from mouth to anus, along the digestive tract). They can help treat conditions related to the oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon (large intestine), rectum, bile ducts, liver and pancreas.

Common health problems and diseases addressed by gastroenterologists are:

  • Mouth Ulcers
  • GERD – Heartburn, Acid Reflux
  • Chronic Diarrhoea 
  • Chronic Constipation 
  • Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
    • Ulcerative Colitis, OR
    • Crohn’s Disease
  • Acute Gastroenteritis (Intestinal Flu/Stomach Flu) 
  • Painful ulcers in the stomach lining (Peptic Ulcers) 
  • Gastric Cancer
  • Inflammation of the pancreas (Pancreatitis)

Warning signs that suggest it may be time to see a GI doctor

Here are the common signs that may need immediate attention of a gastroenterologist:

1. Constipation

Constipation is a condition in which one has bowel movements less than three times a week. However, if the stool is hard and difficult to pass, the condition should not be ignored whatever the frequency per week. In that case, you should see a gastroenterologist immediately or request your physician for a referral.

Causes of constipation can either be acute or chronic.

Acute cases are due to dehydration, acute intestinal obstruction and acute appendicitis. Chronic causes can be anal fissure, decreased fibre residue, Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or endocrine and metabolic diseases. Psychological conditions like depression can also cause constipation.

2. Acid Reflux / Heartburn

Heartburn is a painful burning feeling in your chest or throat. It’s very common to experience heartburn, mainly because of the habit of indulging in spicy food and junk food. Heartburn happens when acid backs up into the oesophagus ( food pipe ) 

If you experience heartburn more than twice a week, GERD might be the disease causing it. In GERD i.e gastroesophageal reflux disease, contents from the stomach move up into the oesophagus causing the symptoms of acid reflux. However, you should keep in mind that you can have  GERD without heartburn. 

Certain types of food, pregnancy, excessive consumption of alcohol can lead to heartburn.

When it comes to the treatment,  over the counter medications can help relieve the symptom. However, it is advised to visit a gastroenterologist because, over time, heartburn can damage the food pipe – oesophagus, which can lead to prescription medicine or surgery.

3. Loss of Appetite

If you are losing interest in eating food or feeling nauseated at the sight of food, there might be an underlying condition affecting your digestive system. While a physical examination and a complete medical history are necessary to make a conclusive diagnosis in these cases, stress & anxiety could also be the reason behind this.

Many diseases related to gastrointestinal organs can cause loss of appetite. Patients with liver diseases like hepatitis and cirrhosis, chronic renal failure, or malignancies like stomach and pancreas cancer often present with reduced appetite.  

Disinterest or aversion to food can be a sign of a mental health condition. People suffering from depression often lose interest in food, resulting in weight loss. Another mental health condition, anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterised by markedly reduced appetite or total aversion to food also causes one to lose interest in food.

4. Nausea and Vomiting

Nausea is that unpleasant feeling of discomfort or unease in the stomach that people often experience before vomiting. There are several possible causes of nausea and vomiting, of which many are related to gastrointestinal conditions.

Some gastrointestinal conditions display nausea as a symptom and can also cause persistent vomiting. In addition to this, persistent vomiting could indicate an acute abdominal emergency like acute appendicitis and internal obstruction, which could require surgical intervention.

If you are experiencing persistent vomiting, you should consult a doctor immediately. A doctor could help diagnose the underlying cause, as infections like hepatitis (inflammation of the liver), viral or bacterial infestation of the intestinal tract, endocrine disorders, or morning sickness as seen in early pregnancy, also present with persistent vomiting.

5. Diarrhoea

Diarrhoea is the opposite of constipation. While using the restroom,  patients might experience watery or loose stool, along with too many bowel movements.

Diarrhoea indicates problems related to digestion. It is a prevalent condition, affecting millions worldwide every year. Diarrhoea can also be due to poor hygiene practises and unsanitary habits. However, if a patient is being affected by this condition regularly, it can indicate a more serious underlying condition for which gastroenterologist consultation becomes necessary.

6. Inflammation of the tongue (Glossitis)

Glossitis is the inflammation of the tongue, and it indicates the soreness and redness of the tongue. It causes the tongue to swell in size, change in colour, and develop a different appearance on the surface.

There are many causes of glossitis; some common ones include:

  • B complex deficiency
  • Megaloblastic anaemia
  • Cirrhosis (a chronic disease of the liver typically resulting from alcoholism or hepatitis)
  • Pernicious Anaemia or  Iron Deficiency Anaemia
  • Tuberculosis 

Suppose you notice an inflamed tongue, or a change in how you chew, swallow, or speak. In that case, it is advised to visit your general practitioner or family doctor who can provide adequate medical care. Your family doctor might refer you to a gastroenterologist if the underlying condition is difficult to diagnose and needs specialist attention.

To sum it up:

Gastrointestinal conditions are varied and common. Mild cases can be treated with home remedies or with advice from a general physician, however, if the condition persists or is severe, you must visit a specialist – a gastroenterologist who can treat your condition effectively.

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