6 Mysteries of the Digestive Tract, Revealed

Everything (yes, everything) you wanted to know about your GI system...but were afraid to ask.

Raise your hand if you've ever wondered about your sometimes-quirky digestive issues. That makes all of us, right? The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is a complex organ system that stretches from the mouth to the anus, and just one imbalance can lead to common digestive problems. Cue the abdominal discomfort — not to mention embarrassing complications. In case you haven't mustered the courage to ask your doctor about the weird ways your body behaves, we've highlighted six surprising truths about your bowels (with intel about when to reach for a gentle yet effective treatment for occasional constipation, such as MiraLAX, made by Bayer Consumer Health). You're welcome.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

1 Gas isn't the only reason you feel gassy.

Gas is a normal part of the digestive process. It comes from either swallowed air or the breakdown of gut contents by bacteria during the digestion process. The thing is, one study that focused on this issue showed that the volume of gas in the intestinal tract actually holds steady pre-and post-meals. Those who complained of severe or chronic gas pain might have been dealing with a GI disorder in combination with an abnormal pain response to gut distention, Dr. Donald Tsynman, a gastroenterologist at Manhattan Gastroenterology, explains.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

2 No, that's not your stomach growling...

…it's actually your bowels. Otherwise known as borborygmi, that grumbly noise stems from your intestinal wall contracting around liquid and gas that's hanging out in your guts, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

3 Sometimes, diarrhea just happens.

Infections, food intolerances, or side effects from medicine can all lead to watery stool. But sometimes doctors can't find an explanation for a case of the runs, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Whatever the reason, your doctor probably won't prescribe antibiotics, Dr. Tsynman says. Although drugs can cut symptoms short, "in most individuals with acute diarrhea — which is usually short-lived and caused by viruses — this benefit does not outweigh the drawbacks: potential side effects, promotion of bacterial resistance, eradication of normal [gut] flora, and cost," he says. (If you're ever concerned about your bowel movements, seek medical care.) 

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

4 Even small droppings mean you're backed up.

Most people assume that constipation means going for days without a bowel movement, but that's not always the case. "The term constipation has varied meanings for different people," explains Dr. Tsynman. "Stools may be too hard or too small for some, while for others defecation is too difficult or infrequent." The generally accepted definition of constipation — fewer than three BMs a week — leaves out many people who suffer from, er, clogged pipes. If you're familiar with this struggle, consider boosting your fiber intake, allowing yourself some relaxed toilet time, or taking an over-the-counter remedy. However, keep in mind that not all laxatives work the same for occasional constipation — while stimulant laxative pills make your body go by forcefully stimulating the nerves in the colon, an osmotic laxative (like MiraLAX), works with the water in your body to hydrate and soften stool.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

5 Pressure can bring on the poop.

Have you ever been so nervous that it felt like your stomach was doing cartwheels? Stress — whether mental or physical — can trigger your brain to release a hormone called CRF (corticotropin releasing factor), which in turn kicks off IBS-like symptoms even in healthy people. According to research published in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, a spike in anxiety may aggravate other preexisting GI issues, including inflammatory bowel disease and gastroesophageal reflux disease (or GERD), and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

6 Your period — and your hormones — can make everything go haywire.

If your system goes completely out of whack every four weeks, you're not alone. A 2014 study found that 73 percent of women experience a change in bathroom habits and at least one primary GI symptom either shortly before or during menstruation, with abdominal pain and diarrhea topping the list. And it doesn't have to be that time of the month for your system to malfunction. Constipation is a frequent complaint during the luteal phase — immediately after ovulation — due to high progesterone levels, says Dr. Tsynman. "This may be in part due to the role that progesterone plays as a muscle relaxant, which explains why certain women have difficulty moving their bowels," he says. The muscles can't do as good of a job moving things along. Again, a safe over-the-counter osmotic laxative might make you more comfortable.

More from Dr Oz The Good Life: