Pay attention to your digestion and lead a healthy productive life
We eat to live. What is more important is to eat right and on time to avoid common gastrological problems that can be a chronic nuisance at best, or lead to physical and psychological diseases at worst.
Long working hours, sedentary lifestyle, poor eating habits – time and again they emerge as the root cause of several diseases, even life-threatening ones. But whether such serious illnesses manifest themselves or not, they definitely do lead to chronic gastroenterological problems that affect one’s quality of life.
A few of the most common problems one is seeing more and more are heartburn/GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease), IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) and IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), hemorrhoids, anal fissures, perianal abscesses and anal fistulas. In worst cases, it can lead to cancer.
People typically experience heartburn, belching, nausea, or regurgitation due to acid reflux. It can leave a bitter taste in the mouth, discomfort in the upper abdomen or dry cough.
There is a valve at the opening of the stomach, called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which closes when food passes through it. Acidity is caused if the LES does not close properly or opens too often, making acid produced by the stomach move up into the esophagus.
Common causes for acidity including eating large meals, lying down or reclining immediately after a meal, being overweight and obesity, eating citric foods, chocolate, spicy or fatty foods, beverages such as alcohol, carbonated drinks, coffee, or tea, and smoking.
This can also occur during pregnancy in women, and certain medications in a few others. If left untreated, it can cause ulcers, bleeding of the esophagus and rarely esophageal cancer, in the long term.
A six-city Abbott Gut-Health Survey reveals that 14% of the urban population in India suffers from chronic constipation. Constipation means difficult, infrequent (less than three times a week), or incomplete bowel movement and caused by insufficient roughage or fiber in the diet, or irregular routine or diet. The resultant straining may lead to anal problems such as fissures and hemorrhoids. Sometimes, constipation could also be a precursor to a serious medical condition.
Apart from the diet and lifestyle issues, constipation may also be a result of narrowing of the large intestine due to strictures, a few of which could be due to cancer. In some patients, there may be functional disturbances in the passage of stools due to loss of coordination between different groups of muscles involved in defecation.
Broadly termed as defecation disorder, it is a common problem, as one ages. “This is also common in ladies who have had a difficult vaginal delivery. Especially if instruments like forceps were used to deliver the baby, there is a possibility of pelvic muscle damage that could aggravate the difficulty in passing stools,” explains Dr P Piramanayagam, Consultant Gastroenterologist, Apollo Hospitals, Chennai.
The doctor also says that laxatives should be taken with care and it is better to consult a doctor.
“Overuse of laxatives can be counterproductive and may further weaken the system,” he cautions.
Also called hepatic steatosis, fatty liver occurs due to fat building up in the liver. The liver is the second largest organ that helps with processing nutrients from food and drinks and eliminating harmful substances from the blood.
While some fat is normal, too much of it can lead to liver inflammation, which can damage the liver, causing scarring and even liver failure. Unchecked development may also lead to fibrosis, cirrhosis and finally, even cancer. “Diet and medication can help correct the problem,” says Dr Piramanayagam.
Fatty liver caused due to excessive consumption of alcohol in called alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD), and in a non-alcoholic as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Obesity, high blood sugar, insulin resistance, and high fat, especially triglyclerides are some risks associated with fatty liver.
If you are suffering from abdominal pain and cramps, excess gas, bloating, change in bowel habits ranging from constipation to diarrhea, you have classical symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Also called spastic colon, irritable colon, the symptoms are caused by the colon muscles contracting more frequently than in others. Stress is one of the factors identified as a cause.
Population-based studies in India estimate IBS prevalence at 10–20%, with 1–2% incidence every year. Only 10–20% of those suffering from IBS seek medical care, and nearly 20–50% of gastroenterology referrals are due to this symptom complex, according to a study.
This is not a worrisome condition and can be managed with dietary changes and medication, according to Dr Piramanayagam. However, it does impact the quality of life of the patients as there is persistent discomfort, associated stress, social disability and economic non-productivity.
Inflammatory bowel disease is a more serious problem that causes severe inflammation and mucosal destruction of the intestine. It can manifest itself as Crohn’s disease, where the entire gastrointestinal tract is affected, more so, the colon and terminal ileum; and ulcerative colitis, causing mucosal inflammation of the rectum and the colon.
Recent studies show that it is becoming common in India, which has the highest number of cases in south-east Asia. Apart from genetic predisposition, some of the other factors causing IBD are childhood infections, lack of breast feeding, smoking, antibiotic overuse and proton pump inhibitors, dietary and psychosocial factors.
The symptoms are not very different from other digestive tract problems and include diarrhoea, fever and fatigue, abdominal pain and cramping, blood in stool, poor appetite and consequent weight loss.
“People tend to Google for information and self-medicate or follow home remedies, which may give temporary relief but not address the root cause,” points out Dr Piramanayagam. If ignored or not treated properly, IBD can lead to cancer. Screening or colonoscopy maybe used to determine the extent of the disease.
Many of the chronic problems related to the gastroenterological problems can be managed with attention to one’s diet and habits. Having timely meals, including enough roughage in the food, including fruits and vegetables, being hydrated, and exercising daily will go a long way in minimising the incidence of common problems such as acidity, constipation and IBS. Consulting a doctor in case of any change in bowel habits is important to eliminate serious maladies such as IBD and cancer.
Avoiding processed foods, fast foods and carbonated drinks are important to maintain good health. Health, after all, is wealth.