Caroline Shannon-Karasik’s Afterglo

Is your digestive system causing illness?

 By Caroline Shannon-Karasik
We’re a nation obsessed with the latest diet fads and get-slim-quick pills, but we cringe when people start talking about digestive health. Something about that tangled web of intestines, stomach lining, gut flora and, yes, the inevitable trips to the bathroom has people feeling uneasy – pun completely intended.

And I don’t blame you – all that talk about our guts can be a little unsettling. But here’s the truth: Research shows that approximately 70 percent of our immunity is tied to our gut health. What that means for our health is that digestive problems are often the culprit behind a host of disorders and diseases, including allergies, autoimmune conditions, reoccurring bouts of the cold and flu, mood disorders, eczema, chronic fatigue, and even autism, dementia and cancer.

What’s more, we often don’t spot the issue until it has wreaked havoc on our bodies. I was diagnosed with celiac disease when I was 26 years old, a journey that took me more than seven years to bring to a close – that’s if I don’t count all of the symptoms I ignored prior to the ones that began to rear their ugly heads when I was 19 years old.

Having a healthy gut means not only nixing common annoyances like bloating and heartburn, but regulating hormone imbalances, decreasing bouts of sickness and, perhaps the most important of all, living the healthy life you’ve been seeking. Here are the details of five common digestive disorders – and how to start treating them once and for all.

Lactose intolerance: According to a study by The Ohio State University, between 30 million and 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant, meaning they lack a digestive enzyme that allows them to properly digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and milk products. Symptoms include nausea, cramping, bloating, gas and diarrhea that typically occur about 30 minutes to two hours after one consumes a dairy product. Although over-the-counter pills like Lactaid are made to help people with the condition better digest dairy products, the best treatment for lactose intolerance is to drastically reduce or eliminate all dairy from one’s diet. Worried about calcium? Green vegetables – like broccoli, kale and collard greens – pack the necessary calcium boost your body requires.

Inflammatory bowel disease: Two of the most common inflammatory bowel diseases are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Symptoms include diarrhea and abdominal pain, in addition to weight loss, anemia, rectal bleeding, joint pain and loss of appetite. Ulcerative colitis affects the top layer of the large intestine, while Crohn’s disease can attack all layers of the intestinal wall. If you suspect you may have an inflammatory bowel disease, talk to your doctor about beginning tests to diagnose your condition. Blood tests, a colonoscopy and/or endoscopy may be necessary to determine whether or not IBD is affecting your digestive system. Treatment can vary, including changes in diet, nutritional supplements, medicines and even surgery.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): Irritable Bowel Syndrome affects an estimated 25 to 30 million Americans, and twice as many women as it does men. The plus side of this condition is that, unlike Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, IBS does not alter or damage bowel tissue, and can often be treated with dietary and lifestyle changes. Symptoms include a persistent bloated feeling, diarrhea or constipation, and cramping or abdominal pain. Triggers for IBS sufferers include stress, hormones and certain foods, like dairy, alcohol or carbonated beverages. If you suspect you have IBS, then talk to your doctor in order to rule out a more serious condition, like colorectal cancer.

Acid reflux: Feel like you often have the burps? You might be suffering from acid reflux. In addition to burping, other symptoms include nausea, hiccups, bloating and dysphagia, a narrowing of the esophagus that feels like you persistently have something stuck in your throat. Common triggers for acid reflux include: eating heavy meals; being overweight; snacking close to bedtime; drinking certain beverages, such as carbonated beverages, alcohol or coffee; and pregnancy. If you experience symptoms two or more times a week, then it’s time to see a doctor about testing and treatment, which might include medications to help reduce acid levels.

Celiac disease: About 1 in 133 people in the United States has celiac disease, an autoimmune condition and digestive disorder that leaves sufferers unable to eat gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and most oats. The consumption of gluten triggers an attack on the small intestine, resulting in symptoms that include: diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, abdominal pain and cramping, bloating, migraines, and even depression. The only “cure” is a completely gluten-free diet that will help begin the healing of the digestive tract. For people who do not suffer from celiac disease but experience similar symptoms, then they may be dealing with a gluten intolerance or sensitivity.

The most important rule of thumb when dealing with digestive upset? Follow your gut – quite literally! I can’t even begin to tell you how many people I’ve met who suffered from symptoms of digestive disorders for years before taking the bull by the horns and deciding to advocate for their health. If you think you might be suffering from a digestive disorder and your doctor isn’t hearing it, then it’s time to find a new doctor. Now more than ever, we have access to the necessary tools and information that will help start us down the path to a happy digestive system. Don’t let your belly rule your world for another moment. Unless, of course, when its urging you to indulge in some gorgeously healthy food. But, hey, that’s another topic!


Caroline Shannon-Karasik is the upcoming author of a gluten-free healthy lifestyle book, set to be released in January 2014. She is the author of the popular gluten-free blog, and is currently training to become a certified health coach. Her writing and recipe development has been featured in several publications, including, VegNews, Kiwi and REDBOOK magazines. Caroline lives with her husband Dan and four adopted cats in Pittsburgh, Penn. Caroline can be reached at


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