2010: Issue 1

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2010 > Digestive Health > Day-to-day digestive health

Day-To-Day Digestive Health

Abdominal pain

Pain in the stomach or abdominal area can be caused by a number of medical conditions. In diagnosing the cause of a particular bout of abdominal pain, doctors assess the type, location, frequency and intensity of the pain.

Most incidents of pain fall into one of three categories:
  • Pain is generalized if it's present in more than half of the patient's abdominal area. This is a common feature of indigestion and stomach viruses, and the intensity of the pain is usually mild. Patients whose pain increases in intensity should contact their doctor.
  • Pain that is localized occurs in one small area of the abdomen; patients with localized pain often experience a rapid increase in pain intensity. This typically indicates a disorder affecting one of the body's organs, such as the appendix, gallbladder or stomach (ulcers), and requires professional medical care.
  • Cramp-type pain is usually relieved by releasing stomach gas or after a bowel movement. Many women experience cramp-like pain during menstruation.
Because abdominal pain can result from a wide variety of causes, the best way to help prevent it is by following healthy lifestyle habits. This includes regular exercise, eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, and drinking plenty of water throughout each day. These good habits promote healthy digestion and regular bowel movements.

It's also wise to limit consumption of spicy foods and food items that contain highly-concentrated ingredients, as these often produce stomach gas. And be sure to eat frequently enough to avoid having an empty stomach for more than a short time.
While most bouts of abdominal pain are minor, you should see your doctor if you experience any of the following:
  • Abdominal discomfort that continues for one week;
  • Abdominal pain that doesn't improve within 24 to 48 hours, or pain that increases in severity and/or frequency;
  • Pain that's accompanied by fever;
  • Abdominal pain occurring during pregnancy;
  • Painful and frequent urination;
  • Abdominal pain that occurs while receiving treatment for another illness.

Is it safe to wait for the pain to resolve itself ?

While it's common to take a "wait and see" attitude with a bout of abdominal pain, this can turn out to be a harmful decision. Mild stomach pain usually responds well to over-the-counter medication. But when the pain is constant and persistent, patience is not a virtue; see your doctor and avoid putting your health at further risk.


Diarrhea is typically caused by viral or bacterial infections that enter the digestive system through food or drinks. For some people, diarrhea is caused by lactose intolerance, a higher sensitivity to dairy products. Diarrhea can also be caused by stress, and it's a fairly common side effect of taking certain medications.

Compared to adult cases, diarrhea in children is considered a more serious health problem. Parents should exercise greater caution and are advised to contact their child's pediatrician for advice and follow-up care.
There are several important steps to follow when you're suffering from diarrhea. In addition to getting plenty of rest, the body needs to stay hydrated to counter the dehydrating effects of diarrhea, so be sure to drink plenty of water or electrolyte-based drinks. Avoid dairy products and beverages containing caffeine, and stay away from sweet and high-fat foods as they are more difficult to digest.

Good hygiene habits help prevent diarrhea. Wash your hands frequently, especially before and after meals. Store food and water properly to avoid dirt and germs, and avoid raw, uncooked or undercooked foods.

Contact your doctor if you experience one or more of the following symptoms:
  • You have diarrhea that persists for more than three days;
  • Your body becomes dehydrated (symptoms include "dry mouth," excessive thirst, urine color that's yellowish, dizziness, weakness and fatigue);
  • Your stool is black in color;
  • You have a fever above 38oC/100.4oF
  • You experience severe stomach and/or rectal pain.

Is taking medication the best way to treat diarrhea?

Bowel movements accomplish more than just flushing waste out of the body; they also get rid of potential infections. Anti-diarrhea medicine reduces the frequency of bowel movements. This can actually make digestive problems worse by preventing the body from flushing out infections. While medicine may relieve the diarrhea, it slows the body's healthy elimination of infectious materials.


The term constipation refers both to difficulty having a bowel movement and hardening of the stool due to heavy pressure exerted during a bowel movement. This digestive condition is very common, and it's typically caused by insufficient consumption of fiber-rich foods like fruits and vegetables. Fiber helps food move smoothly through the digestive system by absorbing moisture in food. Without enough fiber, bowel movements can become very difficult.

Besides food-related causes, changes to one's normal habits and routines can lead to constipation. A person's normal bowel movement pattern can be affected by traveling, too much stress, hormone level changes, becoming pregnant, and by the body's aging process.
Constipation is fairly easy to prevent, usually by making a few lifestyle modifications such as adding more fiber to your diet with more fruits, vegetables and whole-grain cereals. Be sure to drink plenty of water, and don't resist when you feel the urge for a bowel movement. Get medical advice before taking any medications, and exercise regularly to keep your body functioning at its optimal level.

It's important to see your doctor if:
  • You experience constipation that continues for two weeks, or your condition doesn't improve within three or four days after altering your food intake;
  • You have blood in your stool;
  • You experience unexplained weight loss;
  • Your abdominal pain is severe;
  • You experience diarrhea that occurs in-between episodes of abdominal pain.

Should you have at least one bowel movement every day?

Many people assume that not having a bowel movement at least once a day is a sure sign of constipation or something more serious. And many still mistakenly believe that waste remains "stuck" in the bowel and is re-absorbed back into the body.

The truth is, bowel movement habits vary from one individual to another. You can be in excellent health with three bowel movements a week - or three a day. And the body does not re-absorb the bowel's waste materials. The digestive system does an excellent job removing waste, so don't let your worries get the better of your common sense. Instead of reaching for the box of laxatives, let your doctor answer your questions about your individual situation.

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