Every day, your gut is flooded with food it must digest and pathogens it must resist. With such a tiresome battle to wage, it’s little wonder that sometimes things go wrong. Nasty viruses and bacteria can lead to illness, foods can create GI mayhem, and even the immune system can go haywire and cause damage. Here are some common gut problems to watch out for.
You’ve probably had viral gastroenteritis, often called the “stomach flu”, before. This illness is caused by a number of contagious viruses, and while typically not deadly, can lead to several days of diarrhea, vomiting, and fever (1). Despite its moniker, viral gastroenteritis isn’t caused by influenza – the most common source is noroviruses, highly-contagious winter bugs that infect adults. Noroviruses mutate quickly and come in many varieties (2), meaning immunity from a recent stomach bug may not protect you for long. The best way to protect yourself is to wash your hands, avoid sharing food, and stay away from those who are sick (1).
While less common in the U.S. than they were in the past (3), peptic ulcers still plague numerous people worldwide. “Peptic ulcers” are essentially slow-healing sores that form on the lining of the stomach or small intestine (4,5). These sores can cause nausea and pain, and can lead to serious damage to the stomach lining if left unchecked. For decades, doctors believed stress, spicy foods, and other lifestyle factors led to ulcer development, but this was debunked in the 1980’s – now, we know that most cases are caused by a bacteria called H. pylori (6). This awful little microbe can live in the intestines for years before causing ulcers (7). Interestingly, at least one-third of all adults have been infected with H. pylori, yet for unknown reasons only a fraction of those infected develop ulcers.
Here, the immune system and not a bacteria or virus causes gastrointestinal troubles. In those with celiac disease (CD), gluten (a protein found in grains such as wheat (8)) triggers accidental and eventually damaging immune system activity in the small intestine (9,10). This GI tract damage translates to unpleasant symptoms such as gut pain, weight loss, and non-digestive issues like rashes and headaches. It’s not yet understood why some develop celiac disease, but we do know that an imbalance of immune system molecules and (of course) gluten are involved (10). Development may also be influenced by genetics, as having a family member with diagnosed CD puts you at higher risk (11).
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Those with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) have a chronically-inflamed digestive tract due to abnormal immune responses, which can eventually lead to damage (12). While symptoms are often similar to celiac disease (e.g. abdominal pain), they differ in their triggers – while CD symptoms are triggered by gluten (9,10), IBD triggers are less well known and may include food choices and stress (13). Certain types of IBD may be influenced by genetics and environmental factors such as diet and medications (14). The microbiome may be involved in IBD, as those with IBD often have lower alpha diversity (15) and specific types of “good” bacteria (16). One study even detected shifts in IBD patients’ gut compositions when symptom “flare-ups” occurred (17). However, more research is needed to determine the relationship between IBD and the microbiome, and if probiotics could be an effective treatment.
In all cases, it's important to do everything you can to stay healthy and boost your immune system. We recommend you eat a well-balanced diet, wash your hands regularly, drink lots of water, get plenty of sleep, and take a digestive enzyme to ensure you're getting as much nutrients as possible from your food. The best place to begin is with our Starter Pack - your gut will thank you!