Bloating, gas, blood in stool, heartburn, diarrhea—most people experience at least of one of these conditions at some point, but aren’t sure of the cause.

Pinpointing the problem

There are inherent difficulties in diagnosing gastrointestinal tract and digestive problems, according to Dr. Ali Rezaie, assistant director, Gastrointestinal Motility Program at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

“A big problem with symptoms of your digestive system is that they overlap other organs,” he explains. Digestive issues can manifest in everything from your esophagus to your heart, making it challenging for a gastroenterologist to identify the source.

While there are certain red flags, such as difficulty swallowing, night sweats, vomiting, blood in stool or weight loss, Rezaie likes to think there is a better indicator of when to seek attention. “If you have symptoms related to the GI tract and they are affecting your quality of life, you should not sit home and ignore them,” he suggests.

"Digestive issues can manifest in everything from your esophagus to your heart, making it challenging for a gastroenterologist to identify the source."

Too often people are embarrassed to have open chats about their conditions. One of the most neglected, Rezaie says, is fecal incontinence. “People just ignore it out of shame, and so many patients I see have had symptoms for years,” he says.

Rolling out a solution

Some stomach discomfort is tracked to digestive enzymes which, when not working properly, result in everything from lactose intolerance to painful gas and bloating.

Luckily, there have been significant advancements in treatments in the last 10 years. In particular, blood tests developed at Cedars-Sinai can help confirm irritable bowel system (IBS), an ailment affecting 15 percent of the population or about 40 million Americans. Hamstringing treatment in the past has been the difficulty involved in diagnosing the condition including lengthy and invasive tests that basically rule out other issues before being deemed IBS.

The new tests, which measure antibodies in the blood, were based on research suggesting that irritable bowel systems may develop from a bacterial toxin found in food poisoning. Researchers believe the toxin triggers the immune system to attack a person's intestinal tract long after the toxin is gone. Previously, without proof of a physical cause, it was suggested to some patients the problem was in their heads.

“That just added more stress,” Rezaie says. He’s also enthused about the recently FDA approval of two drugs to treat diarrhea associated with IBS, rifaximin and elxadoline. “This is big news because for the longest time we didn’t have any options to treat these patients.”