Most of us refer to parts of the body as sensitive when it is hyperreactive. For example in sensitive skin, even the slightest change in contact with substances, clothing or skin care products will lead to itching, tenderness or even redness. Similarly the stomach and bowels may be hyperreactive to certain foods, beverages, medications or even situations.
Meaning of Sensitive Stomach vs Bowels
It is important to differentiate between symptoms that be attribute to a sensitive stomach and symptoms attributed to a sensitive bowel. There can be some overlap of symptoms.
Upper gastrointestinal symptoms, that are triggered by certain foods, drinks or situations, may be described as a sensitive stomach. These symptoms include nausea, vomiting, indigestion, bloating, heartburn or excessive belching. A loss of appetite may also occur.
Lower gastrointestinal symptoms in response to foods, drinks or situations may be referred to as sensitive bowels. These symptoms include flatulence, intestinal cramps, bloating, abdominal distension, loud bowel noises, loose stool or even diarrhea, difficult passing stool or constipation.
These symptoms may be triggered by certain foods, beverages and situations. In the absence of these factors there are no symptoms. Sometimes the symptoms may already be present due to some pre-existing stomach or bowel disease but are aggravated with exposure to the trigger foods, beverages or situations.
The various possible causes of a sensitive stomach or sensitive bowels has been discussed below. It is important to note that a sensitive stomach or bowels reacts to foods, drinks or situations that would not otherwise cause these symptoms in other people.
For example, drinking water should not irritate the stomach or bowels in most people. Similarly, eating a relatively innocuous food like rice should not be a problem. However, in people with a sensitive stomach, these foods and drinks can trigger symptoms.
Certain foods and beverages are more likely to trigger and worsen these symptoms. This includes:
- Spicy foods
- Processed foods
- Preservatives like MSG (monosodium glutamate)
- Fatty or oily foods
Non-dietary factors that may also be responsible for symptoms include:
- Strong emotions like fear or anger
- Psychological stress
- Certain medication
Sensitive Stomach Causes
A sensitive stomach may not be isolated to stomach problems or symptoms. It may also include the esophagus and first part of the small intestine (duodenum) which lie in the upper abdominal region. Often we incorrectly refer to this entire region as the stomach although the stomach is a specific organ of the digestive system.
Acid reflux is by far the most common condition involving the esophagus and we experience this as heartburn. Also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), it is a problem that arises when the stomach contents (acid and enzymes) moves upward from the stomach into the esophagus. These stomach juices irritate and injure the lining of the esophagus. Ulcers in the esophagus are another common condition that may cause the various symptoms deemed as a sensitive stomach.
Gastritis is a common condition where the stomach becomes inflamed. This is mainly due to excessive use of certain prescription or OTC medication as well as with H.pylori infection. The stomach acid and enzymes constantly irritate and inflame the stomach wall beyond the damage caused by the medication or bacteria.
Stomach ulcers are another common stomach condition. This may progress from gastritis. Ulcers are open sores which form in the wall of the stomach. It is also often caused by excessive drug use and H.pylori bacteria. These ulcers may not heal easily and can cause ongoing symptoms for long periods.
The duodenum is the first part of the small intestine that follows through from the stomach. Many of the same conditions that affect the stomach can also involve the duodenum. This includes inflammation of the duodenum which is known as duodenitis. More commonly open sores in the duodenum known as duodenal ulcers affect this area of the digestive tract. Along with stomach ulcers it is known as peptic ulcer disease.
Less commonly, pancreatitis and gallstones may also cause symptoms when food enters the duodenum. The inflamed pancreas in pancreatitis may be unable to release its digestive enzymes into the duodenum. A gallstone can also obstruct the duct for bile and pancreatic enzymes to pass into the duodenum and lead to a host of symptoms.
Causes of Sensitive Bowels
There are a host of conditions that can affect the bowels, from the duodenum of the small intestine to the rectum of the large intestine. Some conditions are more commonly referred to as sensitive bowels, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and food intolerances such as lactose intolerance.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome is a common condition where there is abdominal pain with abnormal bowel habit. Unlike the other bowel conditions, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) occurs for no clearly identifiable reason. It appears to be a disturbance in the normal activity of the bowels without any disease process. The bowels may be overactive leading to IBS with diarrhea or underactive leading to IBS with constipation.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is sometimes confused with IBS but it is a distinctly separate condition. Here a portion of the bowel is inflamed and it appears to be due to autoimmune factors. The inflammation can be severe to the point that open sores (ulcers) form in the wall of the bowels. Although the condition often affects the bowels, one type of IBD known as Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the digestive tract.
Food intolerances are common. One of the most common is lactose intolerance. This is where the body has a deficiency of the enzyme lactase which is necessary to digest milk sugars (lactose). The remaining lactose in the digestive tract causes irritation of the bowels which leads to symptoms like abdominal cramps and diarrhea.
There are many other bowel conditions that can also be referred to as sensitive bowels. One of the more serious of these conditions is colorectal cancer. Initially the symptoms may appear vague, like a change in bowel habit. However, as the conditions progress these may be additional symptoms like bleeding in the stool and unexplained weight loss.