A Spoonful of Advice About Digestive Health

Local experts break down the causes, symptoms and treatment options of the most common gastrointestinal diseases.


The digestive — or gastrointestinal (GI) — tract that runs from the mouth through the stomach and intestines is responsible for the consumption and digestion of the food we eat. It also removes nutrients from food and expels waste from our bodies. There are multiple opportunities for problems in the lengthy GI tract. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, between 60 million and 70 million people are affected by digestive diseases.

People may have difficulty digesting food, absorbing nutrients or having normal bowel movements, but may not be comfortable discussing it in polite company. Some of  the common troubles include reflux, irritable bowel disorders and ulcers, among others. A variety of treatments are available, but experts agree that it’s best to make decisions along with your physician. 


Reflux or GERD
Heartburn or reflux, otherwise known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is one of the most common digestive problems. GERD happens when the lower esophageal sphincter — the muscle that acts as the valve between the esophagus and stomach — becomes weak or relaxes when it should not. This causes stomach contents to travel upward, triggering heartburn. “It can be caused by some medications, dietary habits, being overweight, being pregnant or a hiatal hernia,” says Dr. Chad Stepke, a gastroenterologist with Columbia St. Mary’s, a division of Ascension, and Madison Medical Affiliates. “Losing weight, changing eating habits, and medications that reduce acid levels may be helpful,” he says. 


Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is an umbrella title for some serious digestive disorders, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, these digestive illnesses affect around 1.6 million Americans. Research has not revealed a specific cause of IBD, but it is suspected to be a combination of a faulty immune system, genetics and environmental factors. 

People with IBD often complain of abdominal pain and diarrhea and sometimes have anemia, rectal bleeding, weight loss or other symptoms. “There is no definitive test for Crohn’s or colitis. We might recommend an upper endoscopy,” Stepke says. Treatment for Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis includes a combination of options, such as prescription anti-inflammatories, changes in diet and nutrition, and, in the worst cases, surgery. 

“Sometimes patients ask about probiotics, which are live bacteria or yeast that could help make you feel better by maintaining a friendly environment in the GI tract. You can find them in supplement form or in yogurt. The doctor’s job is to instruct patients on their options so they can make an informed decision,” Stepke says. 


Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) differs from IBD because it does not cause inflammation to the bowel. Studies estimate that approximately 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. adult population is affected by IBS, with twice as many women as men affected by the disorder. Symptoms of this illness are caused by changes in how the GI tract works and can include both diarrhea and constipation. The most common symptoms of IBS are abdominal pain or discomfort, cramping, mucus in the stool and changes in bowel habits. 

“With GI disorders like IBS and IBD, we always want to make sure that nothing more serious is contributing to the problem, so we will likely do blood work or a colonoscopy,” Stepke says.  


Another common bowel disorder is diverticulitis, which causes abnormal bulges called diverticula somewhere in the wall of the intestinal tract. If these pouches become infected, they can cause inflammation, a tear or an abscess. When diverticulitis occurs, it’s likely to cause abdominal pain, usually in the lower-left side, along with fever. Antibiotics can treat the condition, but extreme situations can require a surgical fix. Experts believe a diet too low in fiber may trigger a flare-up. 


Peptic Ulcers
You have a peptic ulcer if there is an open sore in the lining of your stomach or upper part of your small intestines. A burning stomach pain is the most common symptom. A certain type of bacteria called Helicobacter pylori can disrupt the lining of the GI tract, and so can smoking and excess use of aspirin or alcohol. Doctors can test for the bacteria and treat it with antibiotics. This is important, because if not treated, ulcers can lead to internal bleeding, serious infection and even gastric cancer. Laparoscopic surgery is an option for more severe cases. 


Constipation is a symptom, not a disease, and an indication that your body isn’t working right. But overuse of stimulant laxatives, which cause the intestines to contract rhythmically, can create a dependency, requiring more of the drug and eventually rendering it ineffective. But there is no need to obsess about the necessity for a daily bowel movement, studies show. Anywhere between three times a day and three times a week is normal.

If you’re experiencing discomfort and just can’t go, try an over-the-counter remedy like milk of magnesia, Stepke says. If you’ve gone a week without a bowel movement, it’s probably wise to visit the doctor. Constipation, hard stools and straining could lead to hemorrhoids or an anal fissure or tear. 

“Constipation can be avoided through regular exercise and a diet high in fiber from whole grains, fruits and vegetables,” Stepke advises. “Taking a soluble fiber supplement like Metamucil is a large part of the management of IBS and constipation. It comes in numerous forms,  and there is plenty of data to back up how beneficial it is.”


Infusion Solution
Symptoms of some of the common GI disorders may include dehydration and a deficiency of some nutrients, especially if one is experiencing diarrhea or nausea. And, sometimes the benefits of orally taken supplements and medications are limited. Dr. Alia Fox, an anesthesiologist with Ascension, knows the benefits of intravenous hydration and is sharing the knowledge through her clinic, the H2O Health Hydration Oasis in Brookfield. 

The H2O Health Hydration Oasis offers IV therapy for general wellness and dehydration for a variety of illnesses and other causes. “We offer custom infusions with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants for people who may have a vitamin deficiency or lack of hydration due to chemotherapy, migraine headaches and athletic overexertion,” Fox says. 

Consider that when you take a pill version of a vitamin or mineral you are only really benefiting from 20 to 30 percent of that pill, Fox adds. “An IV is the most effective and efficient way to gain benefits from those supplements,” she says. “With chronic IBS and other GI diseases, you lose key amino acids. The IV treatment can rehydrate and build you up.”


Doing it Naturally
When you meet with your doctor about these or other disorders, you can always talk about homeopathic or natural remedies, according to Stepke. “Doctors are of two minds on these (remedies),” he adds. “Some completely discount the possibility that they help, and some are more receptive. I don’t have any problem with them as long as I know what people are taking and that it isn’t doing any harm.”