Gut health is a popular topic today, partly because digestive diseases––like irritable bowel syndrome, GERD, constipation, and others––are so prevalent. Digestive diseases are among the most debilitating and costly health conditions, accounting for around 3 million hospitalizations in the U.S. per year. They are also among the highest causes for disability in the U.S. workforce. But developing countries are seeing growing rates of digestive illnesses too.
Among diverse populations with different cultures, diets, and genetics, how did these digestive illnesses become so common around the world? How will they continue to develop, and what can we do about it?
In this article, we’ll discuss:
- What are digestive diseases?
- What are the most common digestive diseases?
- Worldwide gut health statistics
- Why are digestive diseases so common in the United States?
- Is there a common denominator in digestive diseases?
- Are digestive disorders reversible?
What Are Digestive Diseases?
Digestive diseases encompass all parts of the digestive system, from the esophagus all the way down through the large intestine. The digestive system also involves the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder, which help the body digest food .
Common symptoms of digestive diseases include:
- Acid reflux
- Food intolerances
- Abdominal pain/cramping
Digestive diseases can range from inconvenient to life threatening, but they are liable to worsen over time without treatment. Besides issues directly within the gastrointestinal system, digestive diseases can also be greatly affected by the nervous system. This impact gives us the two main types of digestive diseases: functional and structural .
- Functional gastrointestinal diseases occur when the physical GI system appears normal, but it doesn’t move right. This looks like issues such as functional constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, and more. This may be at least partly due to an imbalanced nervous system, such as when you are under chronic stress for an extended period of time.
- Structural gastrointestinal diseases occur when parts of the digestive tract appear physically abnormal, and they don’t function properly. Some of these conditions include inflammatory bowel disease, strictures in the intestines, diverticular disease, and colon cancer.
What Are the Most Common Digestive Diseases?
Some of the most common gut disorders include:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is further classified into IBS-D (diarrhea), IBS-C (constipation), and IBS-M (mixed)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- GERD, gastroesophageal reflux disease
- LPR, laryngopharyngeal reflux disease
- Diverticular disease
- Functional constipation
- Gut infections, including H. Pylori, candida overgrowth, Lyme disease, C. diff, etc.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
The inflammatory bowel diseases––Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis––have become some of the most devastating and difficult to treat gut disorders, and yet they were not nearly as commonplace just a few generations ago.
Prevalence of these gut diseases began to increase as Western countries industrialized and spread to Asian, South American, and African regions along with their economic development. In addition, IBD is often diagnosed early in life, meaning the disease burden continues to grow exponentially as more people are diagnosed and the disease worsens over time [3, 4].
Within conventional medicine, IBD is typically treated with pharmaceuticals, like steroids and biologic drugs. And while diet, stress, and environmental factors are becoming more recognized as root causes of the disease, addressing these issues usually remains a complementary treatment to drug therapy .
Worldwide Gut Health Statistics
A 2021 study surveying 73,076 adults across 33 countries found that 40% of those surveyed had a functional gastrointestinal disorder, which includes all the variations of irritable bowel syndrome, functional dyspepsia, functional constipation, and many more .
According to research from United European Gastroenterology, gastrointestinal and liver diseases are responsible for over a million deaths each year in Europe across all ages, and the disease burden is likely to increase as the population gets older . This report also noted that the inflammatory bowel diseases, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, have increased significantly across Europe in the last 30 years, especially in the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries.
East Asian countries, including South Korea, Japan, and China, have also seen increases in gastrointestinal diseases as these countries continue to modernize, adopt Western dietary choices, and widely administer antibiotics . A recent projection study examining the rise of inflammatory bowel disease in Asia and Iran, specifically, predicts the following increases in IBD by 2035 :
- A 2.5-fold increase in Iran
- A 2.3-fold increase in North Africa and the Middle East
- A 4x increase in India
- A 1.5x increase in East Asia
- A 1.6-fold increase in Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia regions.
From these statistics, it seems that the question isn’t whether digestive diseases are on the rise around the world, but rather where and how much they will continue to impact human health on a global scale.
Why Are Digestive Diseases So Common in the United States?
The United States was among the first to see increases in digestive illnesses, and they continue to be among the highest prevalence of diseases overall––why is that? There is no singular cause, but based on research on the microbiome, environmental factors, and even societal pressures, we can infer some of the reasons.
One of the most underrated causes of digestive issues is chronic stress, and Americans tend to be a stressed population. Between the constant news cycle of political discord, socioeconomic and class disparities, high cost of living in many areas, and other stressors, it’s unsurprising that digestive diseases are on the rise. Stress imbalances the nervous system, which can lead to functional digestive issues like IBS .
Americans are also exposed to more harmful pesticides than other countries like China, Brazil, and the E.U. overall . Pesticides in the food and water supply are known to disrupt the gastrointestinal environment, contributing to leaky gut and dysbiosis .
But the Standard American Diet might be the biggest contributor to digestive diseases. This diet is high in carbohydrates, refined sugar and toxic seed oils, and processed foods, as well as low in fiber and nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables. This type of diet sets the stage for gut dysbiosis and poor immune health.
Is There a Common Denominator in Digestive Diseases?
The mechanisms behind digestive disorders are wide-ranging and individual to each person. However, what we do know from extensive research over the last few decades is that environmental factors have just as much (if not more) to do with these disease outcomes than genetic predisposition alone [13, 14, 15].
For example, those with inflammatory bowel disease are often found to have low levels of beneficial bacteria in their microbiomes as well as deficiencies in the metabolites produced by these bacteria, such as certain vitamins and gut supportive short-chain fatty acids like butyrate [16, 17].
Toxic exposure to chemicals, pollutants, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and other hazardous substances in our water and air may also be contributors to digestive diseases. Your digestive system is among the first points of contact with these substances when you eat and drink.
The list goes on: inadequate nutrition in processed foods, high stress levels, traumatic experiences, even a lack of social support can all have a negative impact on gut health.
Are Digestive Disorders Reversible?
You can absolutely take control of your digestive wellness by implementing a healthy diet, reducing stress and calming the nervous system, and limiting your exposure to toxins and pollutants as much as possible. This means making conscious food choices and planning meals, committing to mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga, and upgrading or downsizing your household cleaning products and personal care products. Supplementing certain nutrients may also help maintain gut health.
Probiotics have become a staple gut health supplement for many, and rightfully so, as they are supported by many high-quality scientific studies [18, 19, 20]. But be cautious assuming what probiotic strains you need without testing––one of the biggest myths about probiotics is that they are all the same, but this is false. Research conducted on one probiotic strain cannot be extrapolated to other strains.
New research on postbiotic therapy is also offering a promising potential solution for gut issues. Postbiotics are the health-supportive compounds created by your microbiome, including butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids .*
Phosphatidylcholine (PC) is another supplement that supports a healthy gut and helps maintain the gut lining, where we absorb nutrients into the bloodstream.* It can also support healthy microbial balance and a healthy inflammatory response .*
Take Control of Your Gut Health
Digestive disorders may be on the rise around the world, but there are also more resources available than ever to learn about your gut health and make changes to support it. Gut health is individualized, and some experimentation with diet, lifestyle changes, and supplementation is almost always required to figure out what works for you. But excellent gut health is absolutely achievable, whether you are looking to heal from a digestive condition or optimize your digestion for better overall wellness.Read more about the connection between the gut and your brain.