When your gut talks, pay attention

With so many television commercials talking about different health issues, it’s no wonder folks are confused about digestive tract concerns. There are several health conditions that affect the digestive tract, which includes the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and large intestine.

One disease I often hear about is a group of chronic intestinal diseases called inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). IBD is a group of conditions that cause the body’s own immune system to attack all or part of its digestive tract. Immune cells normally protect the body from infection, but in someone with IBD the immune system mistakes harmless substances for foreign substances and attacks them. This creates inflammation or infection.

About 1.6 million Americans have IBD, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA). Doctors diagnose 70,000 new cases of IBD in the United States each year. Although anyone can have IBD, most people with the disease are between 15 and 35 years old.

The two most common IBDs are ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn’s disease. UC affects the large intestine (the colon) and Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the digestive tract from the mouth to the anus. It’s common to confuse Crohn’s disease and UC with other conditions because they share common symptoms. These symptoms may include significant and persistent diarrhea, stomach pain and cramps, bloody stools (more typical with UC), fatigue, reduced appetite and unintended weight loss. There’s not one specific trigger for IBD, and flare-ups are often unpredictable.

If you’re experiencing these symptoms, the first step is talking openly with your primary care doctor. Your doctor may refer you to a gastroenterologist. Unfortunately, there’s no cure for Crohn’s disease and the only cure for UC is removing the large intestine. A gastroenterologist can help pinpoint the best and latest treatment based on your individual needs. Treatment options include changes in diet and nutrition, surgery, alternative therapies and prescribed medicines.

Know that self-medication is never a solution. Over-the-counter medications may mask the diarrhea and pain, but they don’t stop intestinal damage. A gastroenterologist can help control your symptoms and help prevent long-term damage.

In addition to medication, it’s important to eat healthy, get enough sleep, exercise regularly and manage your stress. With proper care and plenty of patience, many IBD patients achieve long-term remission.


Dr. Mark Flasar is a gastroenterologist at Anne Arundel Medical Center.

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