5. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
What it feels like: The list of symptoms is long and varied: chronic constipation often alternating with diarrhea; gas; bloating; cramping and a feeling that you haven't gotten everything out. Your life is ruled by proximity to a bathroom.
What causes it: Intestinal muscles go haywire, either contracting too quickly or not enough. Stress is often blamed — and there's no doubt that it ratchets up the misery — but family history plays a part, too. Recent research links the neurotransmitter serotonin to IBS, but so far there are no tests or scans to officially diagnose the condition. "Since symptoms for many GI problems overlap, we first rule out other conditions that might be causing the pain, especially if someone is over 50," Shah says. "If none can be found, you might get an IBS diagnosis."
The fix: There's no one-size-fits-all solution; find a doctor who won't dismiss your symptoms and will experiment. Track foods that seem to bring on an attack: carbonated drinks; gassy foods such as coleslaw, broccoli, cauliflower or beans; bran or high-gluten cereal; as well as foods that contain fructose — a sugar found in fruits, root vegetables, caffeine, chocolate and chewing gum. If constipation is your main problem, gradually eat more high-fiber foods. Over-the-counter meds for constipation or diarrhea may help. To reduce stress, consider cognitive therapy, meditation and acupuncture, which studies have found can provide significant relief. One centuries-old aid is peppermint oil, but check with your doctor to find out how much you should take, since it can cause reflux in high doses.
6. Crohn's Disease and Ulcerative Colitis
What it feels like: Both are inflammatory bowl diseases (IBD). Crohn's disease targets the intestines and bowel but can also affect any part of the digestive tract. Some people have mild intermittent flare-ups; others experience excruciating cramping, vomiting, bloating, bloody diarrhea, loss of appetite and weight loss and fatigue. Ulcerative colitis has similar, though less severe, symptoms and affects only the colon and rectum.
What causes it: These are autoimmune disorders in which the immune system — designed to guard against bacteria, viruses and other foreign invaders — turns on itself. The result: chronic inflammation, scarring and blockage. Since it can be hard to absorb key nutrients, such as vitamin B-12, you may be at risk for pernicious anemia.
The fix: Crohn's and ulcerative colitis cannot be cured, but you can tame symptoms with a combination of lifestyle changes and medications, including antibiotics, anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant drugs, plus over-the-counter meds for diarrhea and constipation. Stop smoking, ramp up fluids, exercise and experiment to see which foods you can tolerate. Some find that dairy products worsen symptoms; others can't eat high-fiber grains and vegetables. Eating small meals gives the body time to digest.
Margery D. Rosen is a New York City-based writer specializing in health and psychology.
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