The gastrointestinal (GI), or digestive system, is perhaps the most neglected in the body. A healthy digestive system is something that is all too often taken for granted. But when problems occur, it can cause a significant amount of discomfort very quickly. The good news is that conditions of the digestive system are largely preventable with simple lifestyle changes that can also improve your overall health and wellness.
Read on for tips and information that our resident experts, board certified GI Emori Bizer, MD, and board certified general surgeon Julie Hutchinson, MD, have provided on several GI conditions that can be easily prevented, treated and managed with simple steps towards better health.
— Emori Bizer, MD | Board Certified Gastroenterologist | Gastroenterology of Southern Indiana
“Here at Baptist Health Floyd, we’re very aggressive about performing minimally invasive gastrointestinal procedures whenever possible. Stapled hemorrhoidalpexy is a good example of this. It resolves hemorrhoids with minimal pain and recovery time, while also maintaining natural anatomy.” — Julie Hutchinson, MD, FACS | Board Certified General Surgeon | Baptist Health Floyd Medical Group-Surgery
Protect yourself from colorectal cancer
There is a great deal you can do to help prevent colon cancer, the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. About 150,000 new cases of colorectal cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States, with men and women affected almost equally.
Risk factors for colon cancer are both genetic and environmental, however, genetic conditions account for only five to 10 percent of cases, underscoring the importance of universal screening. A history of colon cancer or polyps in parents or siblings is a genetic risk factor, as is a personal history of polyps, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Polyps found during colonoscopy screening can be removed, often before they become cancerous.
Environmental risk factors for colon cancer are largely preventable and easily controlled. These include excessive alcohol consumption, obesity, sedentary lifestyle and cigarette smoking. Some evidence also shows that long-term consumption of processed meats is associated with an increased risk. Simple, common sense steps can be taken to reduce your risk for colon cancer. These include getting regular exercise, eating a balanced, high-fiber diet that is heavy in fruits and vegetables and low in processed foods and meats, limiting alcohol consumption and not smoking.
When and how often should you receive colonoscopy screenings?
Next to controlling environmental factors, colonoscopy screening is the most important step you can take to prevent colon cancer. According to Dr. Bizer, “A colonoscopy is an exam of the lining of the colon. All colon cancers start as colon polyps which are outgrowths in the lining of the bowel. At the time of colonoscopy, polyps can be removed thereby preventing colon cancer from occurring. In this way, colonoscopy has been proven to decrease the risk of dying from colon cancer.”
- The first screening for individuals of average risk should be performed at age 50. If no polyps are found, you should be screened every 10 years. If polyps are found, more frequent screenings are needed.
- Because of a higher incidence of colon cancer among young African Americans, African American men and women at average risk should begin screening at age 45.
- People with a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) diagnosed with colon cancer before age 60, or two first-degree relatives diagnosed at any age, should have screening colonoscopies starting at age 40, or 10 years younger than the earliest diagnosis in their family, whichever comes first, and repeated every five years. If polyps are found, more frequent screenings are needed.
- People with a first-degree relative with colon cancer diagnosed after age 60 should be screened as average-risk persons, but beginning at age 40. People with two or more second-degree relatives (grandparent, aunt or uncle) with colon cancer should similarly be advised to begin screening at age 40 years, and repeated every five years. If polyps are found, more frequent screenings are needed.
According to Dr. Bizer, “Age plays a significant role in the development of gastrointestinal disease. Many times, patients under the age of 50 can control common GI problems such as occasional heart burn, nausea, diarrhea or constipation with diet, exercise and over-the-counter medications. But if you’re over 50 or if GI symptoms do not resolve with over-the-counter medications, it’s important to see your doctor. And regardless of age, anyone who experiences rectal bleeding, black/tarry stools, unintentional weight loss, persistent nausea, prolonged change in bowel movements or persistent abdominal pain should see their doctor as well.”
Fiber aids in prevention of diverticular disease
Diverticulosis is very common and affects more than half of Americans over age 60. It is identified by small, bulging sacs that form along the walls of the intestines. Once diverticular pouches have formed, you will have them for life. While they cause no symptoms in most people, these sacs can become inflamed or infected and may require medical or occasionally surgical intervention. When this occurs, the condition is known as diverticulitis.
Symptoms of diverticulitis include:
- Bloating and gas
- Tenderness in the lower abdomen
- Fever and chills
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
A high fiber diet is recommended in patients with diverticular disease. How much fiber is enough? 25 grams of fiber per day is the recommended daily intake for an adult. In addition to fiber, the active cultures found in yogurt or over-the-counter probiotic supplements can also help with digestive health. A common myth is that eating nuts, seeds or popcorn can cause a flare of diverticulitis, but this has been disproven.
Hemorrhoids: more common than you may think
Hemorrhoids are often a very embarrassing condition that cause many people to suffer in private. But they needn’t have such stigma. Dr. Hutchinson explained, “Something most people don’t realize is that everyone has hemorrhoids. They are a normal part of the rectal anatomy and actually help regulate
the passage of stools from the body.”
Hemorrhoidal conditions develop when the hemorrhoids become swollen and extend outside the rectum. Not only is this painful, it can also disrupt stool passage.
- Bloody stools
- Itching or irritation around the anus
- Swelling or painful lumps around the anus
- Tissue protruding from the anus
- Leakage of feces
Hemorrhoids vary based on location, and can be located inside or protruding from the rectum. They are classified from mild to severe, depending on the degree to which they protrude from the rectum. Internal hemorrhoids are considered to be mild and are usually marked by bleeding only when straining to pass a stool. Hemorrhoids become more severe when they are pushed through the anus, usually due to excessive, prolonged straining, or extreme heavy lifting. When this occurs they are considered prolapsed.
Minimally invasive treatment option offers quicker recovery, less pain
“Treatment options for hemorrhoids vary from minor in-office procedures to surgical removal of the prolapsed tissue, known as a surgical hemorrhoidectomy,” said Dr. Hutchinson. “A relatively new minimally invasive option called stapled hemorrhoidalpexy is my preferred treatment method whenever possible. It involves repositioning the hemorrhoids back into the rectum, removing the excess tissue that has caused the prolapse and then stapling the hemorrhoids back into place. The advantages are twofold: normal rectal anatomy is maintained since the hemorrhoids are repositioned rather than removed, and pain is reduced since the staple is made in an area of the rectal cavity that is not as sensitive to pain. It allows the patient to get back to work or normal activity within four to six days, rather than four to six weeks with the traditional surgical procedure, and is significantly less painful since there is no anal wound.”
Are hemorrhoids preventable?
For the most part, yes! “The most common causes of hemorrhoids are prolonged straining during bowel movements, usually due to chronic constipation, and extreme heavy lifting. Sometimes women will develop hemorrhoids during pregnancy, which is mostly unpreventable, but by and large, eating a healthy diet that is high in fiber and exercising regularly can help prevent the chronic constipation that causes hemorrhoids,” explained Dr. Hutchinson.
Free Colon Cancer Educational Seminar & Breakfast for Seniors
Thursday, June 7, 8 – 9 am | Baptist Health Floyd Paris Health Education Center
Dr. Huey Nguyen, Gastroenterologist, will give a presentation on Colon Cancer: Prevention, Symptoms & Treatment. All participants will receive a free colon cancer occult blood screening kit. Registration required. Call 1-800-4-SOURCE (1-800-476-8723) to register.