Major Types of Gastrointestinal Diseases & Disorders

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Your GI tract plays a vital role in the absorption of nutrients from the food you eat. There are lots of processes involved along the way, and sometimes they just don't work the way they are supposed to, which can lead to some serious problems for you!

Your Digestive Tract

How much thought do you put into the food you eat after it goes into your mouth? Probably not a lot, but you really should! The journey that food takes through your digestive tract, also known as your gastrointestinal or GI tract, is just beginning at that stage. It starts at your mouth, moves through your esophagus to your stomach, then on to your large intestine, and finally out through your anus. As it goes along this journey it gets processed to a point where you can't even recognize it, and all that nutrition and goodness are absorbed and processed for use by your body.

There are also vital bacteria in your digestive tract that help with digestion. These are called gut flora, and while you might think that bacteria are harmful, some are actually quite helpful, and this includes the naturally occurring ones in your GI tract. Your overall digestive system also involves nerves, hormones, and even other organs like the pancreas and gallbladder.

The human digestive system
digestive system

Proper digestion is really important because it's the process that breaks down food into nutrients that are used for things like growth, energy, cell repair, and proper cell functionality. So when there's a problem anywhere along your GI tract it can lead to serious issues throughout the rest of your body. Let's take a look at some of the major things that might go awry.

GI Diseases

Malabsorption is just what it sounds like -- a poor ability to absorb nutrients through digestion. These important nutrients include things like fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, but also vitamins and minerals. Malabsorption can be caused by many different things. This includes diseases such as AIDS, Celiac disease, and Crohn's disease, medications, cancers, or even as a result of surgery of the GI tract.

Functional disorders of the GI tract are ones in which the digestive system appears to be normal but clearly isn't functioning correctly. These include things like constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). These disorders are often caused by stress, medications, poor diet (or a lack of something important in the diet), and even lack of exercise. Symptoms of these types of disorders generally include bloating, gas, abdominal pain, and cramps, and are often treated with medications and lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise.

Peptic ulcers are also common GI problems that people experience. These are open sores along the digestive tract, caused by too much acid. They can be quite painful and may be aggravated by certain foods. Sometimes ulcers will cause bleeding, which if left untreated can cause serious health issues such as anemia and internal hemorrhages. Ulcers are most often caused by a bacteria known as H. pylori, or by non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs). Ulcers may be treated with medications and lifestyle changes, and in some cases surgery is required.

Remember those good bacteria I mentioned before? It's believed that the appendix, which is attached to the large intestine, is the storehouse for such bacteria, replenishing them in your gut as needed. But when the appendix becomes inflamed, a condition called appendicitis, there is likely a blockage or infection in your appendix. Most often the appendix will need to be removed through emergency surgery to prevent it from rupturing, or to remove the damage if it has already ruptured.

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