A Biologist’s Take On Three Common Digestive Disorders
As perfect as we are all born into this world, the human condition offers some of its own biological challenges for us to deal with while we crawl, walk and start running.
As we know, our body functions as a result of an extremely well-orchestrated symphony involving all the complex bodily processes of digestion, metabolism, immunity and the obvious oversight of the nervous system.
There is a complex network of interaction underlying all our bodily processes. And hence, it is safe to assume that small glitches in such a heavily interconnected network of systems can have varied effects on the healthy functioning of our body.
So, let us try to understand what these bodily glitches are, and how they present themselves and affect our health. We will attend to one bodily process at a time.
The end goal is to use this knowledge to manage our challenges through well-informed intervention and seeking the right management strategy to live a healthy life. Can’t put a price tag on good health, can we?
Digestion is a process in which our gastrointestinal tract (GI), liver, pancreas, and gallbladder are involved. All these organs comprise the digestive system and they work together to break down food into nutrients. These nutrients are used by our body for growth, cell repair, and energy which drives all the biological processes.
So, in this article, we will take a look at three of the most common digestive ailments that affect Americans; Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Constipation and Celiac disease.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Studies conducted have shown that about 12% of people in the United States have IBS. Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder. This means that IBS is related to discrepancies with how the brain and the gut interact with each other and function. These discrepancies may lead to changes in the way the muscles of the bowel contract. The consequence- The many symptoms that follow including persistent pain in the abdomen and changes in the bowel movement which leads to either constipation, diarrhea or both.
Women are two times more likely to develop IBS than men. Factors that can influence the onset of IBS are having family members who have developed IBS, depression, food intolerance and sensitivities, a severe infection of the digestive system, and having a stressful life history and present.
The diagnosis of the syndrome is made based on the characteristics of the stool and its movement and the associated discomfort with it.
IBS treatment that is generally utilized by doctors includes recommendations in the patient’s diet and other lifestyle factors, certain medications, probiotics, supplements, and mental health therapies.
The dietary changes that are usually recommended in case of IBS are consuming more fiber in the diet, avoiding gluten and following a particular eating plan like a low FODMAP diet. The lifestyle changes promoted for IBS treatment include increasing physical activity, addressing and avoiding the usual sources of stress and getting healthy amounts of sleep.
Affecting about 42 million people in the United States alone, constipation is one of the most common gastrointestinal (GI) conditions. Well, constipation is an uncomfortable condition which is typically characterized by the following; where a person has fewer than three bowel movements a week and experiences bowel movements with stools that are dry, small and hard which may be difficult or painful to pass.
Even though constipation is fairly common among all age groups, women (during pregnancy and after birth), older adults, non-Caucasians and people taking anti-depression/painkillers treatment are more likely to experience constipation.
Well, the complications associated with constipation is not pretty as well. Hemorrhoids, anal fissures, rectal prolapse, and fecal impaction, need I say more?
Constipation is treated based on the cause, severity, and the duration of the condition. The treatment might include over the counter medications, dietary interventions, and physical exercises.
Changing the way we eat can help treat constipation. Consuming liquids throughout the day, eating more fruits, vegetables, and food with fiber can aid the treatment of this condition. And indulging in physical exercises every day will also help regularize your bowel movements.
As many as one in 143 Americans (who comes up with such statistics right?) suffer from Celiac disease and most are unaware of having the condition. Celiac disease is a digestive condition where the small intestine is damaged but the damage is not restricted to the small intestine.
The condition is triggered by consuming gluten-containing food. Gluten is a protein present in wheat, barley, and rye. To add to this list is a long line of products such as pre-packaged foods, lip balms, lipsticks, hair and skin products, supplements which also contain gluten in them.
Celiac disease is no joking matter, it can result in long-lasting digestive problems and rid your body off the opportunity to absorb nutrients efficiently. And unlike gluten sensitivity or wheat intolerance, celiac disease damages the small intestine. The small intestine has specialized finger-like projections called villi which helps in the absorption of nutrients from the food we consume. They are the victims of the celiac disease.
The complications associated with celiac disease include malnutrition, fastening the process of osteoporosis (bone softening), reproductive problems and nervous system disorders.
Celiac disease presents itself as digestive problems among other symptoms, the common ones being bloating, constipation, nausea, stomach pain, vomiting, chronic diarrhea, and to get to the icky bit, pale, foul-smelling, or fatty stools that float. Well, it had to be said.
The diagnosis of the disease is done based on the patient’s medical and family history, physical exams, and tests which may include blood tests, biopsy, and genetic tests.
Removing gluten from the diet is most essential part of the treatment. It helps in healing the war injuries of the small intestine. And as the small intestine (villi) recovers, so will the patient’s health while preventing further damage.
The immediate recovery from celiac disease after following a gluten-free diet is somewhere between days to weeks after this diet is started. The complete healing can take up to several years in adults. People with celiac disease can eat foods such as meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, potatoes, and rice as long as they are not spiked with any gluten-containing additives. And instead of wheat flour, buckwheat, rice, soy, amaranth, bean, or quinoa flour can be used.
The digestive system is a complex environment where many factors work together to ensure good health. We, as owners of this system, need to understand our body and learn to listen to it. And the most important bit of this article, the ability to understand what Hippocrates once said about food, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”