Is your gut trying to tell you something?

March 28, 2022 Providence Cancer Team


In this article:

  • Symptoms for digestive health disorders can be easy to misinterpret. Learn which warning signs deserve your attention.

  • Gut health affects more than just your digestive system.

  • Some digestive disorders require professional medical care, including colorectal cancer, diverticulitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and Crohn’s disease.

Everyone gets the occasional stomachache. And dealing with heartburn, gas, or mild indigestion once in a while may not be much fun, but it isn’t typically a serious health concern. How can you tell when your symptoms are a sign of something serious and not just the aftereffects of an extra spicy Taco Tuesday? When is it time to follow your gut and call the doctor? Here are some of the digestive health warning signs that deserve your attention.

Common digestive disorders

Digestive disorders affect your digestive system, also known as the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. During digestion, the food and drinks you consume are broken down into nutrients that are absorbed and used to build new cells. When there's a glitch in the process, it can affect other aspects of your health, including your brain, immune system, heart, weight and hormones. It may also increase your risk of cancer.

Digestive disorders that require professional care include:

  • Colorectal cancer – starts in the rectum or large intestine, also called the colon.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) – causes inflammation in the large intestine, the colon's inner lining, or the intestinal wall, depending on the disorder. Conditions include Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – causes bloating, excessive gas, constipation and diarrhea. IBS is the most common disease diagnosed by digestive disease experts, called gastroenterologists.
  • Diverticulitis – occurs when small pouches develop along the walls of the lower portion of the large intestine.
  • GI bleeding – refers to any bleeding that starts in the GI tract. It may vary in frequency and range from mild to severe.

Warning signs

The symptoms of many GI tract illnesses are often vague and easy to misinterpret. Here are some warning signs you shouldn't ignore to protect your health and manage digestive health issues before they become serious health emergencies.

Abdominal pain and bloating

Abdominal pain and bloating could be a temporary inconvenience that's quickly taken care of with antacids and an improved diet. But they could also be signals of something more serious such as colon cancer, peptic ulcer, or diverticulitis.

Frequent heartburn

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) causes chest pain and burning when stomach acid backs up into your esophagus. Without treatment, it can damage your esophagus and affect your ability to swallow. If you experience frequent gas, bloating and heartburn, it could be signs your gut health needs a makeover.

Unintentional weight loss

Losing weight without trying may sound like the answer to every dieter’s prayers, but in reality, it could indicate several chronic health conditions, including diabetes, liver disease, depression, overactive thyroid, or even cancer. Talk to your doctor if you unintentionally lose more than 10 pounds in a six- to 12-month period.

Changes in bowel habits

“Normal” varies widely when it comes to bowel movements. Talk to your doctor if you notice a change from your regular bathroom habits, such as frequent constipation or diarrhea and black or tar-colored stools. These could signal digestive health problems, including cancer, bowel disease, or infection.

Persistent cough, hoarseness, or sore throat

If you can’t stop coughing at night or after a meal, it could be GERD. Acid reflux is a primary cause of persistent cough. And stomach acid causes hoarseness and a sore throat if it regularly backs up into the esophagus due to reflux.

Bloody stool or vomit

Blood in your stool or vomit strongly indicates a more serious illness. It may mean you’re bleeding internally or have sustained organ damage. Always contact a medical professional if you notice blood in your vomit or stool.


Find a doctor

If you need to find a primary care or gastrointestinal doctor, you can use our provider directory. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also access a full range of healthcare services.

Download the Providence App

We’re with you, wherever you are. Make Providence’s app your personalized connection to your health. Schedule appointments, conduct virtual visits, message your doctor, view your health records, and more. Learn more and download the app.

Related resources

Coping with Diverticulitis

Screening: Young Adults and the Alarming Rise of Colorectal Cancer

Maintain a healthy gut: Three reasons to see a gastroenterologist

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Cancer Team is committed to bringing you the most up-to-date insights about treatments, prevention, care and support available. We know cancer diagnoses strain you both mentally and physically, and we hope to provide a small piece of hope to you or your loved ones who are fighting the cancer battle with useful and clinically-backed advice.

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