The gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), or digestive tract, is the organ system responsible for consuming food, digesting it, extracting energy and nutrients and expelling the remaining waste.
Problems within the GI tract can result in a number of common conditions, ranging from acid reflux and indigestion to bowel conditions such as diarrhea and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). In most cases of common digestive problems, simple lifestyle changes (such as diet and exercise or taking over-the-counter remedies) can help.
Here are some of the most common GI disorders, their symptoms and what to do about them.
Reflux: Acid reflux occurs when stomach acid backflows into the esophagus. Symptoms include heartburn or the taste of regurgitated food or sour liquid at the back of the throat. When acid reflux occurs frequently (at least twice a week), it may be caused by a more severe form of reflux known as GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease.
Reflux/GERD occurs when the muscle between the esophagus and the stomach is weak or relaxes inappropriately, allowing stomach acid back into the esophagus. Acid reflux is generally treated with over-the-counter medication (antacids) and lifestyle changes such as weight loss, eating smaller meals and avoiding trigger foods including dairy, spicy foods, chocolate and fried or fatty foods. Alcohol and nicotine can also contribute to reflux/GERD and should be eliminated.
Peptic Ulcers: The exact cause of these sores in the lining of the stomach is unknown, but it is suggested that stress can aggravate symptoms and prolong healing. Peptic ulcers cause unexplained stomach pain, and if left untreated, can lead to serious infection and an increased risk of gastric cancer. Peptic ulcers are typically treated with antibiotics combined with acid reduction therapy. In severe cases, laparoscopic surgical repair of the ulcer may be necessary.
Gallstones: These are tiny pebbles made of cholesterol and bile salts that collect in the gallbladder. Gallstones can cause severe pain in the upper abdomen, under the rib cage. Obesity is a common cause of gallstones. They can also result from losing weight and then quickly regaining it. Getting rid of gallstones typically requires surgical removal of the gallbladder.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the two most common inflammatory bowel diseases. Symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, anemia, rectal bleeding and weight loss, among others. Both of these diseases can result when the immune system attacks the GI tract. People with Crohn’s disease will get deep ulcers in the lining of the GI tract, whereas someone who has colitis will experience ulcers in the colon and rectum. Both can be treated with prescription anti-inflammatories, steroids and immunosuppressants. Crohn’s may also be treated with antibiotics, and people with a severe case of ulcerative colitis may undergo surgery to remove the colon.
Constipation: Constipation affects millions of Americans, and it’s often the result of a fiber shortage. Symptoms of constipation include hard stools and straining to have a bowel movement. Regular exercise and a high fiber diet—with plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables—is recommended to help prevent constipation.
If you are experiencing pain in your abdomen, difficulty having a bowel movement, heartburn, reflux or excessive gas or belching, it may be the sign of a gastrointestinal disorder. Schedule an appointment with your doctor for tests to determine the cause of your symptoms and the best course of treatment.
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