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Gastrointestinal health: No need to be grossed out

This interview originally aired on In the Moment on SDPB Radio.

Bringing up a very basic human function shouldn't be an embarrassment. Our On Call with the Prairie Doc® conversation dives into how to bring up something you may find gross and what questions you should ask your doctor.

Kelly Evans-Hullinger, M.D., discusses major and minor issues of the gastrointestinal tract.
Your gastrointestinal system – no reason to be grossed out!
Kelly Evans-Hullinger, M.D.

A common lament I hear from my patients as they try to discuss a real concern they have about their body: “I’m sorry; this is so disgusting!” Their cheeks burn with shame as they tell me how their bowels have betrayed them. No matter what the issue is, so many of my patients are mortified discussing their diarrhea, constipation or fecal incontinence. My response, always, is “You can’t gross me out — we talk about poop every day in this clinic!”

Plenty of things can go wrong in the gastrointestinal tract, and even minor issues can be really disruptive in a person’s life. Certain features of bowel dysfunction, like blood in the stool, abdominal pain and weight loss, might signal more urgency to get a problem diagnosed and fixed. We certainly don’t want to miss things like tumors, ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease and diseases that might affect absorption of nutrients.

Oftentimes, none of those “red flags” are present, but a patient’s gastrointestinal symptoms are affecting their ability to function at work or socially. In cases when we either have ruled out or have a low suspicion for something “bad,” we can still offer plenty to help with these symptoms. Sometimes that might mean trials of elimination of food types, dietary changes, addition of fiber or other medications. GI symptoms might be a side effect of another medication. We frequently have to do some trial and error to find the right combination of things that improve an individual’s function, but usually, we can do so. In some cases, consulting with gut specialists, dietitians and even physical therapists can be very helpful.

My point here is this: if you are having gut symptoms that are worrying you or disrupting your day-to-day life, let’s talk about it! Whatever discomfort you have discussing it, I promise, is not shared by your primary care provider or friendly gastroenterologist. We want to help you get answers. And even if there is not a simple diagnosis or fix to the problem, we want to help you be more comfortable leaving the house without worrying about what your gut will do. So, please, don’t let feeling grossed out keep you from asking the question.

Lori Walsh is the host and senior producer of In the Moment.
Ellen Koester is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.
Ari Jungemann is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.