Family history and stress are major players, but what we eat and how we live are still key factors in maintaining a healthy digestive tract, according to Dr. Andrew Chang, a Grass Valley specialist in gastroenterology.
“The digestive tract is an essential system for our survival,” he said. “It processes our food into the fuel we need to do what we do. It’s essential to maintain it also because it affects the body’s other systems as well.”
Dr. Chang advises eating a balanced diet with plenty of fibrous fruits and vegetables and less meat, along with regular cardiovascular exercise. “There is no magic food,” Dr. Chang said. “It’s more common sense than anything else.”
Known as “the gut,” the GI tract actually begins at the mouth and includes everything from teeth, tongue and saliva to the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines and colon. You can also throw in the liver, gall bladder and pancreas and, of course, the zone where waste products exit the body.
“When disease hits in these parts of the body, it can be very life-changing,” Dr. Chang observed. “We have to maintain maximum digestive health so our bodies can function at their maximum.”
The most common disorders that patients bring to his office now are stomach ulcers, acid reflux (gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD), colon cancer and hepatitis C, Dr. Chang said. Other conditions include diarrhea or constipation (irritable bowel syndrome), rectal bleeding, inflammation of the bowel (ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, colon cancer), pancreatitis and gallstones, he said.
“Heartburn is very common,” he said. “About 30 to 40 percent of people will experience this.”
Heartburn is actually acid reflux caused when acid or other materials move back up from the stomach to the esophagus, causing pain and other uncomfortable symptoms. People troubled by heartburn might want to avoid smoking, fatty foods, caffeine, chocolate, peppermint, overeating and bedtime snacks, according to a guide published by the American College of Gastroenterology.
The good news is that breakthroughs continue to be made in treating digestive tract diseases, Dr. Chang said. For example, it may now be possible to cure hepatitis C with medications, and more effective screening is available to detect colon cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, the death rate for colorectal cancer is dropping due to better screening and early detection. Dr. Chang encourages everyone to have a colonoscopy at age 50, and every five to 10 years after, depending on family history and whether polyps were found. He said outward signs of colon cancer could include change in bowel habits, rectal bleeding, anemia, fatigue or pain.
Dr. Chang said any of the following digestive tract symptoms warrant a visit to a gastroenterologist: heartburn, abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea or constipation or bleeding.
Websites of The American College of Gastroenterology (http://gi.org) and the American Gastroenterological Association (http://gastro.org) provide detailed information about the wide range of digestive tract disorders, symptoms and treatments.
All physicians providing care for patients at SNMH are members of the medical staff and are independent practitioners, not employees of the hospital.