Stomach cramps, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, loss of appetite … a slew of conditions can produce these symptoms.

That’s why it can be difficult to accurately diagnose and treat “gut issues”.

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are two similar types of digestive disorders under the heading of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

This condition is not to be confused with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which produces similar symptoms, but without the visible damage to the digestive tract as is common with IBD.

IBD is an autoimmune disorder, meaning that the body’s own immune system attacks the lining of the intestines, causing painful irritation, diarrhoea and bleeding.

In ulcerative colitis, only the colon, or large bowel, is affected.

Crohn’s disease can strike any part of the intestinal tract.

What causes IBD?

Besides an overactive immune system, we still aren’t sure.

There appears to be a genetic link (the disease is more common in people of Jewish descent).

Somewhat distressing is that the incidence of IBD in industrialised countries is increasing, according to the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Emotional distress does not appear to cause IBD, although some studies found that stress can aggravate symptoms.

A diet high in fat may also slightly increase risk.

Blood and stool tests and a scope (endoscopy) of the intestines are the common ways to diagnose IBD.

Once diagnosed, medications and diet can help curb symptoms.

Because the nutrient-absorbing cells of the body are damaged with IBD, nutrition is vitally important.

Most people with this condition require extra vitamins and minerals from supplements – chewable or liquid forms are generally recommended.

Regular small meals and snacks throughout the day are usually better tolerated than large meals. And skip the fried fast foods as much as possible.

To help heal inflamed tissues in the gut, protein should be part of every meal.

Think easy-to-digest foods such as eggs, tofu, fish, poultry, yoghurt, tender lean meat and lactose-free milk.

High-fibre foods may need to be limited during the active stages of IBD as they can irritate an already inflamed digestive tract.

Bananas, melons and cooked vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes, may provide soothing nourishment to an irritated bowel.

Water and other non-caffeinated, non-sugary drinks are extremely important to hydrate intestinal cells and to replenish fluids lost due to diarrhoea.

Aim for at least eight cups a day. Sip, don’t gulp.

To keep up the balance of good disease-fighting bacteria in the intestines, include foods that provide probiotics such as kefir or yoghurt, and prebiotics (the food for good bacteria), which includes bananas, watermelon (no seeds, please) and smooth almond butter.

As always, seek individualised care with a gastroenterologist (a medical specialist in digestive diseases) and a registered dietitian or nutritionist. – The Monterey County Herald/Tribune News Service

Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator in the United States.