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ABOUT THE GASTROINTESTINAL TRACT (GUT)

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The gut stretches from the mouth to the anus, and includes the:

  • Mouth
  • Pharynx
  • Oesophagus
  • Stomach
  • Small intestine
  • Large intestine (colon)
  • Rectum and anus

 

FUNCTIONS

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To understand conditions of the gut, an understanding of how it works is required:

  • The primary function of the GUT is digestion. This is the processing of the foods and liquids that we consume to obtain and absorb the nutrients that we need, which are then used as energy and building blocks by our cells.
  • Enzymes, hormones and good gut bacteria (gut flora) all play a role in the digestive process, whereby food and liquid are moved through the gut by a movement called peristalsis (wave-like muscle contractions)
  • Valves (sphincters) within the gut ensure that food moves in one direction
    Waste products of the digestive process are excreted through the anus in the form of stool

THE DIGESTIVE SYSTEM

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The digestive system consists of the gut and the digestive organs – the liver, the gallbladder and the pancreas.

 

DISEASES

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These involve the gut and the digestive organs
The condition can be infectious (caused by micro-organisms) or non-infectious in nature

INFECTIOUS CONDITIONS

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Most common cause of gut disease
Triggered by viruses, bacteria or parasites
Leads to gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the gut
Involves the stomach and the small intestine
Symptoms include diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal pain
Dehydration is the main danger
Most cases are self-limited
In babies, patients with impaired immune systems, pregnant women and the elderly, it can however be potentially serious
Rehydration and infection control measures are pivotal in the management of gut infections
In some cases, antibiotics, anti-diarrheal, and/or absorbent medication may be indicated

NON-INFECTIOUS CONDITIONS

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Common digestive conditions of the gut include:
Constipation:
Bowel movements that are infrequent or congested, which is often caused by a lack of fibre and/or water in the diet.
Most common symptoms are Infrequent and hard bowel movements
Dietary changes, laxatives or prescription medication may be needed
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD):
Stomach acid reflux caused by weakened valves between the stomach and the oesophagus, which allows acid to move from the stomach into the oesophagus
Heartburn is the most common symptom
Treatment involves antacid medication and dietary changes
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS):
Functional bowel disorder of the large intestine (colon) of which the exact cause is yet unknown, however, stress and food sensitivity may contribute
Most common symptoms are abdominal pain, constipation and/or diarrhoea
Dietary changes and friendly bacteria (probiotics) can help with the management of IBS

 

CROHN’S DISEASE:

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An Inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) that mostly affects the part of the gut connecting the small intestine with the large intestine
The exact cause has not been determined, but family history and genetics may play a role
Most common symptoms are abdominal pain, diarrhoea, rectal bleeding, weight loss and fever
It is usually treated symptomatically, but in some cases medication to suppress the immune system may be required

ULCERATIVE COLITIS:

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This is similar to Crohn’s disease, however, it solely affects the large intestine
The body’s own immune system attacks the lining of the colon, causing sores and ulcers
Abdominal cramps, diarrhoea and bloody stool is experienced
Treatment includes dietary changes and medication to suppress the inflammation

GALLSTONES:

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These are hard deposits that form in the gallbladder when excess cholesterol, waste in bile or the gallbladder itself are not emptied properly
Sharp pain in the upper right abdomen, nausea and vomiting result
Medication is prescribed to dissolve the gallstones and in some cases, surgery may be required

COELIAC DISEASE:

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This is sensitivity to gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), which triggers a reaction from the immune system, whereby it attacks the villi (absorbing protrusions) in the small intestine, leading to malabsorption
Most common symptoms are abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, vomiting, weight loss and anaemia
Excluding gluten from the diet is necessary

 

ANAL FISSURES:

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Tears in the lining of the anus caused by constipation, hard and strenuous bowel movements, and/or diarrhoea
Most common symptoms are pain and bleeding after bowel movements
Medication to relieve pain, anal sphincter muscle relaxants and a diet rich in fibre are recommended. In some cases, surgery may be required

HAEMORRHOIDS:

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Inflammation of the blood vessels in the rectum and the anus due to strenuous bowel movements, constipation and/or diarrhoea
Painful or itchy lumps around the anus and blood in the stool ensue
Introducing more fibre into the diet, creams, or suppositories can assist in relieving pain or itching. In some cases, surgery may be required

DIVERTICULITIS:

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Pouches form in weak areas of the gut lining, particularly in the colon, and become inflamed and/or infected
The exact cause is not yet known, but a lack of fibre in the diet and obesity are risk factors.
Abdominal pain and fever follow
A diet rich in fibre and antibiotics are prescribed. In some cases, surgery may be required

KEEPING THE GUT HEALTHY

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  • Drink at least 8 glasses of water per day
  • Include fibre in the diet
  • Take a probiotic
  • Exercise
  • Avoid the overuse of antibiotics
  • Avoid sugars and refined carbohydrates

WHEN TO CONSULT YOUR DOCTOR

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Visit your doctor when you have:

  • Persistent abdominal or rectal pain and fever
  • Blood or pus in the stool
  • Diarrhoea that persists for more than 2 days
  • Vomiting in combination with diarrhoea that prevents fluid intake
  • Signs of dehydration


Griffin P. Rodgers, M.D, Your Digestive System & How it Works, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Ahmed Zayed, The Function and Importance of The Gastrointestinal Tract, Consumer Health Digest Digestive Diseases, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Biomerieux-diagnostics, Gastrointestinal infections Beth W. Orenstein, Common Digestive Conditions, Digestive Health Christian Nordqvist, What to Know About Constipation, Medical News Today Edward Group DC, Tips to Help You Restore and Maintain Your Gut Health, March 28, 2016 William Blahd, MD, When to Call a Doctor About Digestive Problems, WebMD, September 06, 2016

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