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Home  > Articles on Health  > Digestive Problems

Digestive Problems

Digestive problems are the No. 1 problem in North America. These diseases, encompassing everything from hemorrhoids to colon cancer, result in more time lost—at work, school, and play—than any other health problem. They also appear to be occurring with much more frequency—while many of them were almost unheard of in our grandparents’ times, they are cropping up more and more and at an earlier and earlier age.

Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a common complaint: some 10 to 20 percent of the population experiences the diverse symptoms this syndrome causes. IBS goes by several different names. It is also called spastic colon, spastic bowel, mucous colitis, spastic colitis, colitis, intestinal neurosis, and functional bowel disease.

As its name indicates, it is a collection of symptoms that can appear in any number of combinations. These symptoms include bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain and spasms, and nausea. The pain is often triggered by eating, so people suffering from IBS don’t always eat enough, which results in malnutrition.

Most health practitioners agree that there is no set cause of IBS, and that food allergies, medication, stress, hormone changes, low fiber intake, infection, parasites, lactose intolerance, laxatives, and antibiotic abuse could all be involved. In fact, the consensus is that just about anything that disturbs our intestinal bacterial balance—the ratio of good bacteria to bad bacteria—could have a hand in causing IBS. IBS is not serious in that it is not life-threatening; however, it makes for a very uncomfortable life.

In IBS, the normal rhythm of the muscular contractions of the digestive tract becomes irregular and uncoordinated—the body’s digestive system usually churns along like a good washing machine, but in IBS, the "wash cycle" is irregular, and this interferes with movement of food and water. This means that the food, instead of "rinsing out" of the body efficiently, accumulates in the digestive tract, which, in turn, leads to the accumulation of mucus and toxins in the intestines. The result of this is that gas and stool do not flow freely, and, viola, the above-mentioned symptoms begin to appear.

Because many of the IBS symptoms are the same as those found in more serious digestive problems (such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), the first thing to do is to eliminate the possibility that the symptoms are related to one of these. After you and your health practitioner are sure that your problem is IBS, action can be taken.

Many health practitioners feel that food allergies are the main cause of IBS and recommend being tested for allergic reactions to foods. Foods that trigger allergies include cheese, milk, chocolate, butter, coffee, eggs, and nuts. Controlling food allergies often controls IBS.

Dietary changes can help relieve symptoms. Avoid animal fat, butter, carbonated drinks, chocolate and candy, dairy products, fried foods, sugar, food additives, alcohol, and tobacco.

Most health practitioners recommend a high-fiber diet and supplementing with a bulking fiber like psyllium. Drinking plenty of water is also important. Helpful supplements include aloe vera, peppermint, chamomile, melissa, valerian, ginger, and chaste berry.

Diverticular disease

Diverticular disease is common among the older set. Estimates are that 30 to 40 percent of North Americans over age 60 have this problem.

Diverticula are pea-shaped pouches that forms in the colon wall. The underlying cause of diverticula is constipation: the pressure that straining produces causes pouches to form at weak points in the colon.

Diverticulosis is the condition of having diverticula present. This condition is usually symptom-free, and most people do not realize they have it. However, for a few people, diverticulosis results in spasms and pain.

If the pouches become inflamed or rupture, the condition is called diverticulitis. This generally occurs when waste matter is trapped in a pouch. Diverticulitis can result in pain and fever. It may require surgery.

For diverticulitis, antibiotics and a soft-fiber diet are initially recommended, with a switch to a high-fiber diet as progress is made.

The key to preventing diverticulosis and repeat incidences of diverticulitis is diet. In the past, a low-fiber diet was recommended. Today, experts recommend a high-fiber diet—at least 30 grams of fiber a day. Especially good is a bulk and stool-softening fiber such as psyllium. Plenty of water should be consumed.

Stay away from eating nuts, grains, and seeds, but well-cooked brown rice is helpful. Eliminate dairy products, red meat, sugar, fried foods, and spices from the diet. Get plenty of leafy greens, and do not overuse laxatives as they can irritate the colon wall.

Probiotics — "friendly" bacteria or the food that feeds them—and aloe vera are also recommended.

Inflammatory bowel disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) encompasses two serious problems: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. These two diseases are similar but have different characteristics. They also share many of the symptoms of IBS.

Diet plays an important role in IBD. Epidemiological studies have shown that populations that consume plenty of fiber and a minimum of sugar rarely experience IBD. There is also a positive correlation between cigarette smoking and fast food and IBD.

IBD is considered an autoimmune disease—that is, the body’s immune system attacks itself. There is no set cause of IBD. Theories center around infection, hypersensitivity to antigens (the body components that stimulate the immune system) in the gut wall, inflammation of blood vessels that results in less blood getting to tissue (ischemia), and food sensitivities. These causes may be interconnected.

IBS can result in abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea, fever, rectal bleeding, constipation, and weight loss.

Ulcerative colitis

is the continuous inflammation of the mucosal lining of the colon and/or rectum. Once this inflammation is established, it remains forever. Ulcerative colitis can be quite mild or very severe. The most common symptoms are diarrhea and bleeding.

A correct diet is important in combating ulcerative colitis. Because it may be partially due to food sensitivities, you should keep a daily record of foods and how they may affect you. In general, you should eat plenty of vegetables. If you cannot tolerate them raw, steam them. A high-fiber diet is beneficial, as is consuming plenty of garlic and drinking at least eight glasses of water a day. You should avoid carbonated drinks, spicy foods, and caffeine.

Crohn’s disease

Chron's disease also results in inflammation, but it can occur anywhere from the mouth to the rectum. It usually occurs in the colon near the ileocecal valve, which separates the contents of the small intestine and colon. The inflammation in Crohn’s disease goes much deeper than that in ulcerative colitis, and it can result in abscesses and fistulas (a narrow passage formed by disease or injury, as one leading from an abscess to a free surface).

Symptoms of Crohn’s disease include chronic diarrhea, pain in the abdomen, fever, headaches, malabsorption of nutrients, and loss of energy, appetite, and weight. "Nondigestive" symptoms include canker sores in the mouth and clubbed fingernails.

Crohn’s disease strikes when its victims are at a young age: between the ages of 14 and 30, and it is becoming increasingly prevalent in children. Attacks occur every few months to every few years, and, if attacks continue, long-term bowel function may deteriorate and the risk for colon cancer increases some 20 times.

According to Francisco Contreras, M.D., non-complicated Crohn’s disease responds to garlic, vitamin A, and beta carotene, and diets that avoid the consumption of well-known allergenic substances found in wheat, milk, corn, and chocolate.

Dietary recommendations include eating nonacidic fresh or cooked vegetables. These include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, spinach, and garlic. As always, plenty of liquids should be consumed and the "usual" foods avoided: refined carbohydrates, alcohol, caffeine, carbonated beverages, and red meat. Probiotics may aid in digestion, and aloe vera may soften stool. Stress is also a factor, so it is important to keep stress levels down. Studies have also indicated that fish oil may limit reoccurrences.

This article is reproduced from Partner's Magazine with the permission of AIM International

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