How to (finally) fix your chronic stomach issues

Use these helpful tools to figure out what's really causing all that cramping, bloating and gas -- and get rid of it for good.

Amanda Capritto
6 min read
Woman eating a healthy snack at the gym

What you eat affects your digestion big time, but so do a lot of other factors.

andresr/Getty Images

Whether it's constipation, diarrhea, gas or the dreaded bloat, everyone deals with digestive discomfort at one point or another. Occasional digestive symptoms usually aren't an issue -- maybe you just ate too much in one sitting or you've got a virus that will pass -- but chronic digestive issues can indicate an underlying issue. 

The thing is, it's not always easy to tell what's going on. From food sensitivities to inflammatory diseases, any number of things could be contributing to your symptoms. You should contact a doctor if you have severe or persistent symptoms, but by knowing the basics of digestion and using the right tool, you could get to the bottom of your digestive discomfort and restore health to your gut. 

Read more: Why IBS and poop are suddenly trendy

Digestion basics

Your digestive system includes your gastrointestinal tract -- your mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and anus -- along with your liver, pancreas and gallbladder. This intricate organ system is responsible for helping your body adequately absorb nutrients from the food you eat, break food down into energy-available molecules and get rid of waste.

A bunch of things need to go right for your digestive system to operate optimally: You need healthy colonies of gut bacteria, proper amounts of digestive enzymes and timely secretions of digestive hormones, among other things.

If one tiny component goes wonky, you may experience a range of symptoms, including gas, bloating, cramping, constipation, diarrhea or acid reflux. If things are really off, you might experience nondigestive issues, such as brain fog, fatigue, mood swings, poor sleep or skin breakouts. 

What causes digestive issues?

Most of the time, no one thing triggers gastrointestinal problems, and often, GI symptoms aren't spontaneous. Many people develop digestive issues slowly, when a combination of factors worsens over time. Any of these seven elements could be affecting your digestion:

Diet: Obviously, what you eat impacts your entire GI tract. If you're allergic to or sensitive to certain foods, your body may revolt in the form of upset digestion. 

Hydration: Nothing works well when you're dehydrated. Water acts as a lubricant for all organ systems and helps your body maintain homeostasis

Sleep: Lack of sleep affects every part of your body, including your digestive system -- and all the hormones that dictate its functions. Studies show that short sleep duration alters the levels of important digestive hormones and that poor sleep harms the healthy bacteria in your microbiome.

Stress: You may not intuitively equate stress with an upset stomach, but research tells us that millions of neurons in your gut communicate with the billions of neurons in your brain along something called the gut-brain axis. When you're stressed, you also produce excess cortisol, which can trigger a handful of digestive reactions.

Microbiome dysfunction: Your gut contains two kinds of bacteria: friendly and unfriendly. If the bad bugs outweigh the good ones, your risk for all kinds of digestive issues increases. 

Inflammation: Inflammation is a leading cause of disease worldwide, and that also applies to digestive diseases. If your GI tract is chronically inflamed, it may lead to inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticular disease or other conditions. 

Hormonal imbalances: Consider your hormones the chemical messengers in your body. They tell your organs what to do and when to do it. If you have too much or not enough of any hormone that affects your digestion, such as gastrin or peptide YY, symptoms may appear.

Tools to help decipher digestive symptoms

If you feel overwhelmed about digestion, GI disorders and understanding symptoms, know that there are a handful of products, apps and services available to make it all a bit easier. Here are five great ways to take control over your digestion.

Aire by FoodMarble

This pocket-size breath test identifies food intolerances in real time by analyzing the amount of hydrogen in your breath. Excess hydrogen in your breath may indicate excess fermentation in your large intestine, which can signal food intolerances. 

How that works: When you eat food, it travels to your small intestine where most of it is absorbed. What's left unabsorbed travels to the large intestine, where it begins to ferment. Too much undigested food can cause high levels of fermentation, which can lead to digestive discomfort. 

The Aire supposedly works especially well for four of the FODMAPs, a certain type of carbohydrate that many people can't digest properly. For an additional $30 (on top of the device's $160), you can purchase packets of powdered lactose, fructose, inulin and sorbitol to find out if you're sensitive to one of those FODMAPs. 


This tiny breath-testing device measures the hydrogen in your breath after you eat. Excess hydrogen can be an indicator that your body isn't fully digesting your food. 

Food Marble


Nima makes devices that look similar to the Aire, but they test food itself instead of your reaction to food. The company currently offers a peanut sensor and a gluten sensor, so Nima might work for you if you already know you have a food intolerance or allergy. 

The sensors use antibody-based chemistry to detect traces of gluten protein down to 20 parts per million and peanut protein down to 10 parts per million. Both sensors have been clinically studied and are recognized by the National Institutes of Health, so I'd trust them if I had a gluten or peanut allergy. 

Oh, and a big bonus: Nima sensors are FSA/HSA reimbursable

At-home food sensitivity tests

Most people have a sensitivity to one food or another, regardless of whether or not it's considered nutritious. Sometimes the severity of a food sensitivity depends on quantity. For example, I personally don't react well to large portions of dairy, but do just fine with half-and-half in my coffee. There are a few tests on the market that can give you an idea of what foods trigger unpleasant symptoms for you. 

EverlyWell, Test My Allergy, Persona Labs and What's My Food Intolerance are some examples of at-home test manufacturers. LetsGetChecked, an at-home medical testing company, offers a celiac test

Don't confuse food sensitivities (sometimes called food intolerances) with food allergies. Food sensitivities take place in the digestive system when some factor results in your body failing to break down a food, such as lack of a certain digestive enzyme. 

Food allergies, on the other hand, involve the immune system. Food allergies occur when your body recognizes a food as an invader and sends antibodies to attack it, which often results in symptoms like hives and swelling. In severe cases, food allergies can cause life-threatening reactions. 

If an at-home test claims to report back true food allergies, it may be false advertising, as there's no scientific consensus that supports these methods. Always talk to a doctor if you think you have a food allergy. 


EverlyWell and other companies offer food sensitivity tests, but be wary if they claim to identify true food allergies.


Food journals

Perhaps not the easiest option, but definitely the most accessible, food journaling is a tried-and-true way to understand your body. It takes time and effort to log everything you eat, but if you really want to get to the bottom of your symptoms, food journaling is worth it. 

You can opt for a pen-and-paper food journal, or you can download an app. For the best results, make sure to log how you feel before, during, immediately after and a couple hours after a meal or snack.

Digestion-tracking apps

Unlike food journals or food-logging apps, digestion-tracking apps help you log components other than food and reactions to food. For instance, the app Cara allows you to track your food intake, digestive symptoms, mood, stress, stool conditions, menstrual cycle, sleep, workouts and medications to give you an incredible comprehensive look at the way your body reacts to different situations. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.