An illustration of the digestive system is shown.
The digestive system is a pretty complex set of organs. When something goes wrong, you usually know about it soon thereafter. Here’s how to tell whether it’s something serious. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

From top to bottom, digestion is a pretty complicated process. And many digestive disorders can occur at almost any point along the journey from mouth to… well, you know.

Spectrum Health Medical Group gastroenterologist Ben Kieff, MD, shares the seven most common conditions and what to do about them.

The symptoms of many of these digestive diseases resemble each other, as well as other medical conditions or problems, Dr. Kieff noted. When in doubt, it’s always best to consult your doctor for a proper diagnosis.

1. Constipation is the most common digestion-related complaint.

  • Symptoms: Uncomfortable or infrequent bowel movements.
  • Try this: Add fiber in your diet (think “an apple a day”), drink more fluids (go for eight glasses of water a day) and get more exercise (walk around the block).
  • When to get help: If constipation doesn’t go away, or if it seems to come out of nowhere, or if you’re in pain.

2. Lactose intolerance upsets the stomachs of up to 50 million Americans.

  • Symptoms: Nausea, cramps, bloating, abdominal pain, gas or diarrhea after consuming dairy products such as milk, cheese and ice cream. This is caused by the lack of an enzyme you need to digest the sugar in dairy products.
  • Try this: Limit dairy products and try lactase, an over-the counter pill to replace the missing enzyme.
  • When to get help: Now. Symptoms of lactose intolerance may resemble other medical conditions or problems.

3. Reflux (GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease) irritates 14 percent of the population.

  • Symptoms: Heartburn (acid indigestion), and in some cases, a dry cough, asthma symptoms and trouble swallowing. This happens when gastric acid flows from the stomach into the esophagus.
  • Try this: Avoid foods that trigger your symptoms, don’t eat just before bedtime, take antacids and other medications aimed at reducing stomach acid. And if you smoke, quit.
  • When to get help: If problems persist and diet and lifestyle changes don’t do the trick. Over time, GERD can damage your esophagus and can even lead to esophageal cancer.

4. Celiac disease (gluten intolerance) is gut-wrenching for one in 133 people.

  • Symptoms: Chronic diarrhea, weight loss, abdominal pain and gas, pale foul-smelling stool, anemia and more.
  • Try this: A gluten-free diet is a must. Gluten is found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. This may require a major change in your eating habits.
  • When to get help: Now. Symptoms of celiac disease are similar to those of other digestive diseases and intestinal infections.

5. Inflammatory bowel diseases (like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis) attack 25 to 45 million people.

  • Symptoms: Diarrhea (sometimes bloody), abdominal pain, weight loss, fatigue and more. Bowel disease may start if your immune system attacks your gastrointestinal tract.
  • Try this: There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but it may help to stop smoking, drink more fluids, exercise and experiment to see what foods you can eat safely. Smaller meals may help, too.
  • When to get help: Now. Find a doctor who won’t dismiss your symptoms and is willing to experiment with you for the best solution.

6. Gallstones are diagnosed one million times a year.

  • Symptoms: You could have gallstones without symptoms. If they grow larger or obstruct bile ducts, however, you may have a “gallstone attack” with pain, nausea and vomiting after a fatty meal, or at night.
  • Try this: If you’re diagnosed with gallstones during an ultrasound test, but you don’t have symptoms, take a wait-and-see approach before jumping into surgery.
  • When to get help: Immediately if you experience pain lasting more than five hours or sweating, chills, low-grade fever, yellowish skin or eyes and clay-colored stools.

7. Diverticular disease will pop up in one out of two seniors.

  • Symptoms: Cramps, bloating or constipation caused by inflammation of diverticula (small pouches) that bulge outward through the wall of the colon.
  • Try this: There may be a link to diet, so make sure yours includes 20 to 35 grams of fiber each day by eating whole grain foods, fruits, veggies and beans.
  • When to get help: Immediately if you experience pain on the left, lower abdomen, fever, nausea, vomiting, chills and cramping, as the diverticula may be infected.