Gastrointestinal distress can make life miserable – but for most patients, dietary changes and other healthy habits can help.

A primary care physician like Dr. Madiha Haji at Primary Care Specialists is often the first stop for patients with abdominal pain, bloating and other symptoms.

She can rule out serious illness and help patients feel better through lifestyle changes and medication.

Stomach issues are one of the most common complaints doctors hear. So what do they wish every patient knew about improving their “gut health”?

It’s worth a visit to the doctor

Madiha Haji, MD, a physician at Regional One Health’s Primary Care Specialists, said many stomach problems are due to something simple like a virus, food poisoning or acid reflux. But some signal serious issues like Inflammatory Bowel Disease, appendicitis or even cancer.

Therefore, it’s important to visit a primary care provider.

“Gastrointestinal complaints comprise a huge percentage of the patients we see,” Dr. Haji said. “Most times it resolves with lifestyle changes or medication, but I have encountered patients with red flag symptoms who I send to a specialist or even the emergency room.”

Dr. Madiha Haji, a primary care physician at Primary Care Specialists, says gastrointestinal issues are one of the most common complaints she hears from patients. She helps them improve their diet and get medication and screening if needed.

For non-emergencies, dietary changes usually help

“Diet almost always triggers symptoms, especially chronic complaints like gas, bloating, acid reflux and bowel changes,” Dr. Haji said. “I prefer to educate patients to develop healthy habits prior to starting a medication.”

She also helps them overcome obstacles.

“People have busy lives and don’t have time to prepare meals every day. I tell patients to do what they can and choose the best option given their circumstances.”

If you have to eat out, watch portion size, choose foods that aren’t fried, and order water instead of soda or a sugary drink. “These small changes matter,” Dr. Haji said. “For good gut health it’s important to have a well-balanced diet including fruits, vegetables and high-fiber foods.”

Diet isn’t the only lifestyle factor

“It is very important to draw patients’ attention towards their lifestyle,” Dr. Haji said. “It plays a very important role in the treatment of not only their GI complaints but many other preventable conditions, such as obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes and hypertension.”

Regular physical activity is important. Moving around after eating – rather than lying down or sitting – can improve digestion.

Dr. Haji added tobacco and alcohol use and overuse of medications like aspirin or ibuprofen can also trigger stomach problems.

For most patients, dietary changes are the first place to start to improve gut health. Getting more fiber from fruits and vegetables and avoiding fried foods are two simple changes that Dr. Madiha Haji suggests to her patients.

If lifestyle changes don’t help, there’s still hope!

Sometimes stomach problems require additional treatment.

Dr. Haji said some patients do need medication for issues like reflux or constipation, and she can refer those with especially stubborn symptoms to a specialist. Proper lab work and screening are necessary to diagnose and treat serious conditions like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and cancer.

“Colon cancer is one of the most common cancers in men and women, so educating patients about screening is very important,” Dr. Haji said. “Many patients are reluctant and afraid of the colonoscopy procedure, so education plays a vital role in convincing those who are hesitant.”

You can start improving your gut health today!

A primary care provider can help patients make the right lifestyle changes for their specific needs and get up to date on their screening.

For an appointment with Dr. Haji at Primary Care Specialists, 3109 Walnut Grove Rd., call 901-515-4800.