Facts and Fallacies About Digestive Diseases

By Dr. Harinath Sheela MD

The Digestive System

Researchers have only recently begun to understand the many, often complex diseases that affect the digestive system. Accordingly, people are gradually replacing folklore, old wives’ tales, and rumors about the causes and treatments of digestive diseases with accurate, up-to-date information. But misunderstandings still exist, and while some folklore is harmless, some can be dangerous if it keeps a person from correctly preventing or treating an illness. Listed below are some common misconceptions about digestive diseases, followed by the facts as professionals understand them today.

Ulcers
Spicy food and stress cause stomach ulcers.

False

The truth is, almost all stomach ulcers are caused either by infection with a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) or by use of pain medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen, the so-called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Most H. pylori-related ulcers can be cured with antibiotics. NSAID-induced ulcers can be cured with time, stomach-protective medications, antacids, and avoidance of NSAIDs. Spicy food and stress may aggravate ulcer symptoms in some people, but they do not cause ulcers. Ulcers can also be caused by cancer.

Heart burn
Smoking a cigarette helps relieve heartburn.

False

Actually, cigarette smoking contributes to heartburn. Heartburn occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES)—a muscle between the esophagus and stomach—relaxes, allowing the acidic contents of the stomach to splash back into the esophagus. Cigarette smoking causes the LES to relax.

Bowel Regularity
Bowel regularity means a bowel movement every day.

False

The frequency of bowel movements among normal, healthy people varies from three a day to three a week, and some perfectly healthy people fall outside both ends of this range.

Constipation
Habitual use of enemas to treat constipation is harmless.

False
Habitual use of enemas is not harmless. Over time, enemas can impair the natural muscle action of the intestines, leaving them unable to function normally. An ongoing need for enemas is not normal; you should see a doctor if you find yourself relying on them or any other medication to have a bowel movement.

Iritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome is a disease.

True

Irritable bowel syndrome is a disease, although it is also called a functional disorder. Irritable bowel syndrome involves a problem in how the muscles in the intestines work, as well as pain perception in the bowel. It is characterized by gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhea or constipation, possibly both. Although the syndrome can cause considerable pain and discomfort, it does not damage the digestive tract as organic diseases do. Also, irritable bowel syndrome does not lead to more serious digestive diseases later, such as cancer.

Diverticulosis
Diverticulosis is a serious but uncommon problem.

False

Actually, the majority of Americans over age 60 have diverticulosis, but only a small percentage have symptoms or complications. Diverticulosis is a condition in which little sacs or out-pouchings called diverticula develop in the wall of the colon. These sacs tend to appear and increase in number with age. Most people have no symptoms and learn that they have diverticula after an x ray or intestinal examination. Less than 10 percent of people with diverticulosis ever develop complications such as an infection (diverticulitis), bleeding, or perforation of the colon.

Inflamatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease is caused by psychological problems.

False

Inflammatory bowel disease is the general name for two diseases that cause inflammation in the intestines, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. The cause of the disease is unknown, but researchers speculate that it may be a virus or bacteria interacting with the body’s immune system. No evidence has been found to support the theory that inflammatory bowel disease is caused by tension, anxiety, or any other psychological factor or disorder.

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