Suffering in silence? Why patients should discuss digestive health with their doctors

Millions of Americans experience gastrointestinal problems like abdominal pain and constipation. Yet many suffer in silence, because they are too embarrassed to discuss these issues with their doctors.

Dr. Manny Alvarez, managing health editor at, spoke to Dr. Steven Lamm, a New York internist and author of the new book No Guts, No Glory, about how people can address stomach pain and get the help they need.

Lamm believes that people often forget how important the gastrointestinal organs are to their overall health.

“We kind of don't pay enough respect to these organs,” Lamm said. “We think about the heart and the brain, and we forget that the gut is involved with…absorption of nutrients.”

One of the biggest gastrointestinal problems Lamm sees among patients: irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). According to Lamm, there are several forms of IBS, which can include symptoms such as stomach pain, diarrhea and constipation. Fortunately, more new treatments are becoming available for people suffering from IBS. But first, patients need to overcome their fear of discussing the issue with their doctor.

“They have to understand that this is a medical condition,” Lamm said. “This is nothing. First of all there are…a million people that share their problem. And they need to be able to go to their doctor, especially in light of the fact that…there are new treatments that are available.”

In addition to medical interventions, Lamm said that simple lifestyle changes can make a big difference in improving gastrointestinal symptoms. Certain foods are more likely to irritate the digestive system, such as processed foods, milk products, gluten, chocolate, alcohol, spicy foods and foods containing fructose.

People who suspect they may have a gluten sensitivity can experiment with their diet or undergo testing with the help of a doctor to identify an allergy or intolerance. Overall, it’s important for people to pay attention to what they are eating in order to keep stomach problems under control, Lamm noted.

“Change your diet. Change how you eat, how quickly you eat,” Lamm said. “Maybe introduce probiotics. Maybe use digestive enzymes. There (are) a lot of things that people can do.”

Additionally, learning to manage stress can also help soothe digestive issues.

“We know when people are anxious, (when) they're stressed out… you'd immediately feel it in your gut,” Lamm said. “That's because of the millions of receptors for serotonin in your gut.”

Patients should always consult with a doctor if their gastrointestinal symptoms persist.

“The important thing is that medical science has advanced. We have a better understanding of what constipation is. We have a better understanding of what irritable bowel syndrome and we can target treatment,” Lamm said. “So it's a mistake not to speak to your doctor.”

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