The gastrointestinal tract is a series of organs that are from our mouth to our anus, including the mouth, esophagus, stomach, large intestine, small intestine, and rectum. Together with the accessory organs of digestion, such as the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder, our gastrointestinal tract makes up our digestive system. These organs are supplied by an extensive network of blood vessels, which also transport nutrients to other organs in our bodies. The function of our digestive system is regulated by nerves and hormones. Also, the bacteria that reside in our gastrointestinal tract play a part in immunity, digestion, and our overall health. Our digestive system organs are held in place by a membranous sac known as the peritoneum.
Numerous conditions can affect our gastrointestinal tract and have an impact on our digestion or overall health. The conditions may range from mild to serious. Some conditions may have similar symptoms and causes, which means further investigation is required before your doctor can make a diagnosis. The first and most common signs of gastrointestinal problems usually include bloating, shingles, constipation, heartburn, diarrhea, bleeding, nausea, vomiting, swallowing problems, abdominal pain, and weight gain or weight loss. There are numerous causes of gastrointestinal problems. However, the most common causes are as follows.
- Enzyme deficiencies, which is a condition when your intestines lack enzymes to metabolize certain foods, such as grains, beans, or milk. Without some enzymes, the food remains undigested and you feed the ravenous bacteria in your intestine. As a result, you experience a lot of intestinal dilation and you produce a lot of gas. The most common problem caused by enzyme deficiency is lactose intolerance.
- Psychological responses. You can develop food aversions. For instance, you had meat for dinner one night and it caused you to vomit. The Pavlovian response will associate meat with the bad after-effect.
- General gastrointestinal problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome are caused by a sensitive nerve that leads to inflammation in your intestinal walls.
Gastrointestinal problems can be divided into two categories: functional gastrointestinal disorder and structural gastrointestinal disorder. To understand more about the cause of gastrointestinal problems, let’s take a look at both categories.
Functional gastrointestinal disorders
With functional gastrointestinal disorders, your gastrointestinal tract may look normal but does not work properly. These are the most common problems that affect the gastrointestinal tract, including the colon and the rectum. Various factors can upset the gastrointestinal tract and its ability to keep moving. These factors include:
- Sedentary lifestyle or not enough exercise
- Following a diet low in fiber
- Eating dairy products in large amounts
- Changes in routine
- Resisting the need to have a bowel movement
- Resisting the need to have a bowel movement because of pain from hemorrhoids
- Taking certain medicines, such as antidepressants, strong pain medicines, iron pills, as well as antacid medicines that contain aluminum or calcium.
- Overusing laxatives
Two of the most common examples are constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). When you have constipation, it is hard for you to have bowel movements, meaning your colon can’t pass stools through the rest of your digestive tract. The bowel movements are also infrequent (less than 3 times a week) or incomplete. Constipation is often caused by inadequate fiber in your diet or a disruption in your regular diet or routine. Constipation can cause abdominal pain and bloating. It also causes you to strain during a bowel movement, which leads to small and hard stools as well as anal problems such as hemorrhoids and fissures.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that occurs when the colon muscle contracts more often than normal. It is usually triggered by certain food, emotional stress, and medicines. IBS can cause excess gas, abdominal pain, cramps, bloating, as well as changes in bowel habits, such as harder and looser stools.
Structural gastrointestinal disorders
With structural gastrointestinal disorders, your bowel looks abnormal and does not work properly. In some severe cases, the abnormality many need to be removed with surgery. Some of the most common structural gastrointestinal disorders are inflammatory bowel disease, diverticular disease, colon polyps, and colon cancer.
- Diverticular disease is the formation of diverticula (tiny pockets) in the lining of the bowel. These tiny pockets can be pea-sized or much bigger. They are formed by increased pressure on the intestinal walls by waste, gas, and liquid. These tiny pockets are often found in the lower portion of the sigmoid colon. Diverticular disease can occur suddenly. The symptoms include constipation and diarrhea, painful cramps, chills, fever, and tenderness in the lower abdomen.
- Colon polyps are small clumps of cells that form within the lining of the colon. They can develop into colon cancer over time and usually don’t cause any symptoms. However, some people experience a change in stool color, rectal bleeding, iron deficiency anemia, and pain. Colon polyps most likely occur on people who are 50 or older, overweight, smoke cigarettes or have a family or personal history of colon polyps.
- Colon cancer is cancer that occurs in the large intestine (colon). It often begins as noncancerous polyps. The symptoms include rectal bleeding, blood in the stool, persistent change in bowel habits (such as constipation or diarrhea), fatigue, weakness, abdominal pain, and unexplained weight loss.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a chronic swelling that can affect one or more parts of your gastrointestinal tract. It has two types: ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. it can cause abdominal pain, fatigue, diarrhea, loss of appetite, rectal bleeding, night sweat, unexplained weight loss, and incomplete bowel movements.
Gastrointestinal problems, both functional and structural, can be serious and complicated. If you continue to experience the digestive problem, it is best to make an appointment with a gastroenterologist as soon as possible. A gastroenterologist specializes in diagnosing as well as treating diseases that occur in the digestive system. Some signs that your gastrointestinal problem is serious or an emergency medical problem include continuous vomiting, bloody stools, sweating, severe abdominal cramps, and sudden weight loss.
However, when you experience the problem, don’t be shy and get yourself diagnosed since they can turn out to be something serious. Many gastrointestinal problems can be minimized by practicing good bowel habits, attending cancer screening, reducing stress, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.