Here are some conditions that can develop when the digestive system does not function properly.
Figure 4.4 Disorders of the Digestive System
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a persistent form of acid reflux that occurs more than two times per week. Acid reflux occurs when the acidic contents of the stomach leak backward into the esophagus and cause irritation. It is estimated that GERD affects 25 to 35 percent of the US population. An analysis of several studies published in the August 2005 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine concludes that GERD is much more prevalent in people who are obese. The most common GERD symptom is heartburn, but people with GERD may also experience regurgitation (flow of the stomach’s acidic contents into the mouth), frequent coughing, and trouble swallowing.
There are other causative factors of GERD that may be separate from or intertwined with obesity. The sphincter that separates the stomach’s internal contents from the esophagus often does not function properly and acidic gastric contents seep upward. Sometimes the peristaltic contractions of the esophagus are also sluggish and compromise the clearance of acidic contents. In addition to having an unbalanced, high-fat diet, some people with GERD are sensitive to particular foods—chocolate, garlic, spicy foods, fried foods, and tomato-based foods—which worsen symptoms. Drinks containing alcohol or caffeine may also worsen GERD symptoms. GERD is diagnosed most often by a history of the frequency of recurring symptoms. A more proper diagnosis can be made when a doctor inserts a small device into the lower esophagus that measures the acidity of the contents during one’s daily activities. About 50 percent of people with GERD have inflamed tissues in the esophagus.
The first approach to GERD treatment is dietary and lifestyle modifications. Suggestions are to reduce weight if you are overweight or obese, avoid foods that worsen GERD symptoms, eat smaller meals, stop smoking, and remain upright for at least three hours after a meal. People with GERD may not take in the nutrients they need because of the pain and discomfort associated with eating. As a result, GERD can be caused by an unbalanced diet and its symptoms can lead to a worsening of nutrient inadequacy, a vicious cycle that further compromises health. Some evidence from scientific studies indicates that medications used to treat GERD may accentuate certain nutrient deficiencies, namely zinc and magnesium. When these treatment approaches do not work surgery is an option. The most common surgery involves reinforcing the sphincter that serves as a barrier between the stomach and esophagus.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is characterized by muscle spasms in the colon that result in abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and/or diarrhea. Interestingly, IBS produces no permanent structural damage to the large intestine as often happens to patients who have Crohn’s disease or inflammatory bowel disease. It is estimated that one in five Americans displays symptoms of IBS. The disorder is more prevalent in women than men. Two primary factors that contribute to IBS are an unbalanced diet and stress.
Symptoms of IBS significantly decrease a person’s quality of life as they are present for at least twelve consecutive or nonconsecutive weeks in a year. Large meals and foods high in fat and added sugars, or those that contain wheat, rye, barley, peppermint, and chocolate intensify or bring about symptoms of IBS. Additionally, beverages containing caffeine or alcohol may worsen IBS. Stress and depression compound the severity and frequency of IBS symptoms. As with GERD, the first treatment approaches for IBS are diet and lifestyle modifications. People with IBS are often told to keep a daily food journal to help identify and eliminate foods that cause the most problems. Other recommendations are to eat slower, add more fiber to the diet, drink more water, and to exercise. There are some medications (many of which can be purchased over-the-counter) to treat IBS and the resulting diarrhea or constipation. Sometimes antidepressants and drugs to relax the colon are prescribed.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder affecting between 0.5 and 1.0 percent of Americans—that is, one in every one- to two-hundred people. It is caused by an abnormal immune reaction of small intestine cells to a type of protein, called gluten. Gluten forms in the presence of water and is composed of two protein parts, glutenin and gliadin. Glutenin and gliadin are found in grains that are commonly used to make bread, such as wheat, rye, and barley. When bread is made, yeast eats the flour and makes a waste product, carbon dioxide, which forms bubbles in the dough. As the dough is kneaded, gluten forms and stretches. The carbon dioxide gas bubbles infiltrate the stretchy gluten, giving bread its porosity and tenderness. For those who are sensitive to gluten, it is good to know that corn, millet, buckwheat, and oats do not contain the proteins that make gluten. However, some people who have celiac disease also may have a response to products containing oats. This is most likely the result of cross-contamination of grains during harvest, storage, packaging, and processing.
Celiac disease is most common in people of European descent and is rare in people of African American, Japanese, and Chinese descent. It is much more prevalent in women and in people with Type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease, and Down and Turner syndromes. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and can include pale, fatty, loose stools, gastrointestinal upset, abdominal pain, weight loss and, in children, a failure to grow and thrive. The symptoms can appear in infancy or much later in life, even by age seventy. Celiac disease is not always diagnosed because the symptoms may be mild. A large number of people have what is referred to as “silent” or “latent” celiac disease.
Celiac disease diagnosis requires a blood test and a biopsy of the small intestine. Because celiac disease is an autoimmune disease, antibodies produced by white blood cells circulate in the body and can be detected in the blood. When gluten-containing foods are consumed the antibodies attack cells lining the small intestine leading to a destruction of the small villi projections. This tissue damage can be detected with a biopsy, a procedure that removes a portion of tissue from the damaged organ. Villi destruction is what causes many of the symptoms of celiac disease. The destruction of the absorptive surface of the small intestine also results in the malabsorption of nutrients, so that while people with this disease may eat enough, nutrients do not make it to the bloodstream because absorption is reduced. The effects of nutrient malabsorption are most apparent in children and the elderly as they are especially susceptible to nutrient deficiencies. Over time these nutrient deficiencies can cause health problems. Poor absorption of iron and folic acid can cause anemia, which is a decrease in red blood cells. Anemia impairs oxygen transport to all cells in the body. Calcium and vitamin D deficiencies can lead to osteoporosis, a disease in which bones become brittle.
If you think you or someone close to you may have celiac disease, do not despair; it is a very treatable disease. Once diagnosed, a person follows a gluten-free diet for life. This requires dedication and careful detective work to seek out foods with hidden gluten, but some stores carry gluten-free foods. After eliminating gluten from the diet, the tissues of the small intestine usually rapidly repair themselves and heal in less than six months. However, there are rare reports of patients whose intestinal damage is not reversed.
- Gut Microbiome and Disorders © Natalie Fox is licensed under a CC BY (Attribution) license