What are gastrointestinal symptoms? What may contribute to them?

What are gastrointestinal symptoms?

Gastrointestinal symptoms involve any upset to your gastrointestinal tract—your esophagus, stomach, intestines, rectum, or anus, and other organs of the gastrointestinal system including the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas. They include nausea, vomiting, heartburn, mucositis, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas, and pain.

What are the signs or symptoms of gastrointestinal distress? 

Common gastrointestinal symptoms:

  • Inflammation (sometimes painful) of the mucous membranes in the esophagus, stomach or intestines
  • Abdominal pain
  • Queasiness
  • The urge to vomit
  • Vomiting
  • An inability to have a bowel movement
  • Either very firm or very soft/liquid bowel movements
  • Intestinal gas
  • Feelings of abdominal fullness or bloating

What may contribute to gastrointestinal symptoms?

Gastrointestinal symptoms may arise as side effects of some cancer treatments or of tumors causing pressure or damage to the gastrointestinal system—gastrointestinal tract, liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. 

Gastrointestinal symptoms may also be symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, or pain. If any of these is contributing to your gastrointestinal symptoms, managing these conditions will be important in reducing your gastrointestinal symptoms.


Many different conditions and situations can cause or trigger gastrointestinal symptoms.1Mayo Clinic staff. Nausea and vomiting. Mayo Clinic. April 8, 2022. Viewed May 9, 2022; Constipation. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Viewed May 9, 2022; Diarrhea. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Viewed May 9, 2022; High calcium levels (hypercalcemia). Canadian Cancer Society. Viewed May 27, 2022.

Medications

Other medical treatments

  • Radiation therapy to the whole body, the abdomen, or the brain’s vomiting center
  • Stomach, intestinal, or gallbladder surgery

Medical conditions

  • Brain tumor
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Liver problems such as hepatitis or cancer
  • Gallbladder problems
  • Electrolyte imbalances such as low sodium or high calcium
  • Hypercalcemia (high levels of calcium in the blood, the most common oncologic emergency)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Problems with intestinal function
  • Metabolic conditions such as thyroid problems

Lifestyle

  • Lack of exercise
  • Not enough liquids
  • Not enough dietary fiber
  • Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement
  • Spicy foods, alcohol, and coffee may be irritating to the gastrointestinal tract, including the esophagus2Baker S, Fairchild A. Radiation-induced esophagitis in lung cancer. Lung Cancer (Auckland). 2016 Oct 13;7:119-127.
  • Noise may possibly trigger higher perception of gastroesophageal reflux disease symptoms

Complementary therapies

Therapies that we have reviewed that may cause short-term gastrointestinal symptoms as a side effect:

Authors

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS

Senior Clinical Consultant
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Laura Pole is senior clinical consultant for CancerChoices. Laura is an oncology clinical nurse specialist who has been providing integrative oncology clinical care, navigation, consultation, and education services for over 40 years. She is the co-creator and co-coordinator of the Integrative Oncology Navigation Training at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC. Laura also manages the “Media Watch Cancer News That You Can Use” listserv for Smith Center/Commonweal. In her role as a palliative care educator and consultant, Laura has served as statewide Respecting Choices Faculty for the Virginia POST (Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment) Collaborative as well as provided statewide professional education on palliative and end-of-life care for the Virginia Association for Hospices and Palliative Care.

For CancerChoices, Laura curates content and research, networks with clinical and organizational partners, brings awareness and education of integrative oncology at professional and patient conferences and programs, and translates research into information relevant to the patient experience as well as clinical practice.

Laura sees her work with CancerChoices as a perfect alignment of all her passions, knowledge and skills in integrative oncology care. She is honored to serve you.

Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS Senior Clinical Consultant

Nancy Hepp, MS

Lead Researcher and Program Manager
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Ms. Hepp is a researcher and communicator who has been writing and editing educational content on varied health topics for more than 20 years. She serves as lead researcher, program manager, and writer for CancerChoices. Her graduate work in research and cognitive psychology, her master’s degree in instructional design, and her certificate in web design have all guided her in writing and presenting information for a wide variety of audiences and uses. Nancy’s service as faculty development coordinator in the Department of Family Medicine at Wright State University also provided experience in medical research, plus insights into medical education and medical care from the professional’s perspective.

Nancy Hepp, MS Lead Researcher and Program Manager

Last update: January 8, 2024

Last full literature review: April 2022

CancerChoices provides information about integrativein cancer care, a patient-centered approach combining the best of conventional care, self care, and evidence-informed complementary care in an integrated plan cancer care. We review complementaryin cancer care, complementary care involves the use of therapies intended to enhance or add to standard conventional treatments; examples include supplements, mind-body approaches such as yoga or psychosocialtherapy, and acupuncture therapies and self carelifestyle actions and behaviors that may impact cancer outcomes; examples include eating health-promoting foods, limiting alcohol, increasing physical activity, and managing stress practices to help patients and professionals explore and integrate the best combination of conventionalthe cancer care offered by conventionally trained physicians and most hospitals; examples are chemotherapy, surgery, and radiotherapy and complementary therapies and practices for each person.

Our staff have no financial conflicts of interest to declare. We receive no funds from any manufacturers or retailers gaining financial profit by promoting or discouraging therapies mentioned on this site.

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