The digestive system contains the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, pancreas, liver, and gallbladder, which helps the body digest food. Digestion helps break down food into energy, which our body uses for growth, development, and cell repair. Gastrointestinal diseases are disorders of the GI tract. Some digestive diseases are acute, which last only a short time, while others are chronic and last for a longer time.
Gastrointestinal diseases affect the GI tract anywhere between the mouth to anus. Examples include food poisoning, nausea/vomiting, lactose intolerance, and diarrhea. Digestive disorders affect millions of people in the United States each year.
Signs and symptoms:
Some GI tract diseases have no obvious issues in the organs upon examination, but there are still some symptoms. Other diseases have symptoms and there are visible disorders in the GI tract.
Most gastrointestinal diseases can be prevented or treated. Symptoms can include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Belly pain
- Weight gain or loss
- Swallowing problems
Types of diseases
Digestive disorders can occur in anyone’s life. Sometimes this lingering gastrointestinal ailment requires lifestyle changes and treatment. Digestive disorders are very common, affecting about 20% of people in the United States.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
A condition called acid reflux occurs when stomach acid backflows into the esophagus. Other symptoms include that one may feel a burning sensation in the middle of the chest that commonly occurs after meals or at night.
Many people experience acid reflux and heartburn once in a while. If you have symptoms that affect your daily life, then it can be a sign of GERD, a chronic digestive disease that affects 20% of people in the United States.
The esophagus is a hollow tube that carries swallowed food and drink from your mouth down to the stomach. A ring of muscles called the lower esophageal sphincter(LES) connects the stomach and esophagus. When the LES is weak, stomach acid can flush back up into the esophagus and cause heartburn. This condition can cause serious damage to the esophagus in the long run.
If the following signs and symptoms are experienced, see your doctor in the first instance:
- Bad breath
- Tooth erosion
- Chest pain
- Pain in the upper part of the abdomen
- Trouble swallowing or breathing
These symptoms can be relieved by avoiding the foods and beverages that trigger their symptoms and taking antacids or other medication that reduces stomach acid production and swelling of the esophagus. Moreover, lifestyle changes like not lying down after a meal, elevating the head of the bed, and quitting smoking can also help, but some cases of GERD require proper treatment, medication, or even surgery.
About 1 percent of the American population has celiac disease. It is also estimated that more than 80% of those with celiac disease are unaware, or have been misdiagnosed with some other condition.
Celiac disease is seriously sensitive to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Eating gluten sets the immune system on the attack. It damages the villi, the fingerlike protrusions in the small intestine that help absorb nutrients from the food we eat.
In children, symptoms may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Weight loss
In adults, symptoms can include:
- Bone loss
Some people with celiac disease may not have any symptoms. The single treatment for celiac disease is to completely avoid having gluten. Alternatives to gluten include cornflour, brown rice, quinoa, lentils, amaranth, and soy flour.
If one finds bright red blood in the toilet bowl when moving the bowels, it could be a sign of hemorrhoids, a commonly found condition. About 75% of adults experience hemorrhoids often from straining during bowel movements.
Hemorrhoids are an inflammation of the blood vessels at the end of the digestive tract that can be itchy and painful. Causes of hemorrhoids include diarrhea, chronic constipation, straining during bowel movements, and lack of fiber in the diet.
You can prevent hemorrhoids by drinking more water, eating more fiber, and exercising. Excessive use of creams and suppositories can provide some relief of hemorrhoids symptoms.
In acute cases, a hemorrhoidectomy is needed to remove hemorrhoids surgically or other treatments may be appropriate, including rubber band ligation, which uses rubber bands to prevent blood flow to hemorrhoids, and sclerotherapy, in which a small needle is used to inject medication into the vessels to make them shrink.
Crohn’s disease is a part of inflammatory bowel disease. It affects the parts of the gastrointestinal tract, especially the terminal ileum. As many as 780,000 of the people in the United States may have Crohn’s.
Doctors are not sure of the exact causes of the disease, but genetic and family history may play an important role. The most common Crohn’s symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Weight loss
- Rectal bleeding
Treatment depends on the symptoms and can include immunosuppressants, topical pain relievers, and surgery. In order to prevent Crohn’s disease, avoid triggering foods like alcohol, coffee, dairy products, carbonated beverages, raw fruit, and vegetables, red meat, and foods that are fatty, spicy, fried, or gas-producing.
Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease. It affects around 907,000 adults in the United States. The symptoms of ulcerative colitis are quite similar to those of Crohn’s, but the affected part of the digestive tract is mainly the large intestine, also called the colon.
Ulcers develop in the colon’s lining due to an immune response. When the immune system tries to fend off a virus or bacteria, an abnormal immune response attacks the cells in the GI tract too. Visit your doctor if you experience frequent and urgent bowel movements, blood in the stool, pain with diarrhea, or abdominal cramps.
To relieve the inflammation, options include eliminating trigger foods and medication. In severe cases, treatment for ulcerative colitis can include surgery to remove the colon.
Most people call this the stomach flu and includes symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and headaches.
Gastroenteritis is caused by a viral or bacterial infection in the gut. Bacterial infections can be caused by salmonella or E.coli, while viral infections can include rotavirus, parasites, and norovirus.
The best advice is to drink plenty of fluid to avoid dehydration and make the best of it if the symptoms last for a few days. Use good hand hygiene to prevent spreading the infection, and ask others not to use the same bathroom facilities until your symptoms stop. Symptoms lasting more than a few days require seeking the care of a healthcare provider, which may include testing for antibodies that could indicate an allergy or signs of infection.
Several surgical procedures are performed on the digestive tract. These include laparoscopy, endoscopy, and open surgery. Organ transplants can be performed on the small intestine, pancreas, and liver.
Many health care providers can help diagnose and treat digestive diseases. A gastroenterologist is a physician specialist who possesses extra expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of digestive problems and may be consulted in serious cases.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases
- Phillips, MM. Digestive diseases. 2021. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007447.htm
- Orenstein, BW. 9 common digestive conditions from top to bottom. 2020. https://www.everydayhealth.com/digestive-health/common-digestive-conditions-from-top-bottom/