The gastrointestinal system, or GI tract, is the name given to a collection of organs that work together to digest food. These organs fit together in a long tube, running from the mouth to the anus, and include the esophagus, stomach, and intestines, among others. With so many parts working together, complicated by today’s busy lifestyles and diets, digestive problems are common. As many as 1 in 3 Americans have a digestive or GI disorder. There are a huge variety of digestive problems, but the most common are IBS, constipation, GERD, hemorrhoids, and ulcers.
IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, happens when the muscles surrounding the colon contract too easily or frequently. The result is abdominal pain, cramps, diarrhea or constipation, gas and bloating. IBS attacks can often be brought on by specific triggers, so a key part of treatment is learning which foods trigger IBS attacks and avoiding them. Treatment also includes exercise, avoiding stress, and medications if needed.
Constipation, or large, hard, or infrequent stools, happens to everyone at some point. It can be caused by a disruption in routine or food, or by eating a diet without many fresh fruits and vegetables. Although it is uncomfortable, constipation is common and usually not serious, but it can sometimes become chronic. Adding fiber to the diet, exercising, and taking medications may help.
GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, is a severe form of chronic heartburn where stomach acid spills back up into the esophagus. Left untreated, the acid may even eat away at the esophagus and cause serious damage. Treatment includes changing the diet to avoid trigger foods, losing weight if needed, medications, or even surgery.
Hemorrhoids are blood vessels around the rectum that become irritated, swollen or torn while straining during a bowel movement. They are most often caused by constipation, but can also be caused by pregnancy, diarrhea, or simply a genetic predisposition towards hemorrhoids. Treatment involves first treating any constipation issues, then keeping the area clean and soothed until it has healed. If these measures are ineffective, surgery is sometimes used.
Peptic ulcers are sores or spots of inflammation in the lining of the stomach or close to the stomach in the small intestine. Usually this area is coated with a protective lining that shields the tissue from the strong stomach acid, but a break in the lining can let acid in, causing the sores. It used to be thought that stress caused ulcers, but now we know that is not the case. Most often, they are caused by an infection by H. pylori bacteria, but ulcers can also be caused by alcohol abuse or overuse of aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, or other NSAIDS. The symptoms of an ulcer are pain, hunger, nausea, and fatigue.
Gastrointestinal problems, perhaps more than any other area, are markedly affected by lifestyle. Many disorders can be prevented or treated at least in part by eating a healthy diet high in fiber, exercising regularly, drinking enough water, and limiting alcohol intake. Still, the frequency of digestive disorders means that even the healthiest person can be affected by them. See your doctor if you notice blood in your stool, abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, or any significant change in bowel movements.