Digestion is an organic process that breaks down and transforms the food you eat into nutrients that pass through your intestinal wall to get into your bloodstream. It starts in your mouth, where you grind them and mix with your saliva, and then it continues in your stomach, which secretes digestive juices to break down the food for a few hours.
When the predigested food (or chyme) leave your stomach, your intestine continues to digest them by adding digestive juices from your pancreas and gallbladder. The resulting nutrients cross the wall of your intestine and circulate in your blood to be used by the organism. What has not been absorbed, added to the dead cells of your intestinal wall, turns into fecal matter in your colon.
Causes, Symptoms and Risk Factors
Disorders in the digestive system (gastrointestinal) are all problems and diseases that simultaneously affect several parts of the digestive system, while others only affect one part or one organ. There are many of them, their cause varies and can also be attributed to food allergies or intolerances.
Functional Digestive Disorders or Dyspepsia
Functional digestive disorders are not related to a digestive disease or organic lesion, but to a malfunction of the digestive system. They manifest as stomach digestive disorders, or dyspepsia (loss of appetite, nausea, heartburn, rashes, bloating) or intestinal digestive disorders (bloating, intestinal gas).
Dyspepsia manifests itself in the stomach through difficult digestion that causes bloating, nausea and the impression that your stomach is constantly full.
The causes of functional digestive disorders may include: a big meal that is difficult to digest (e.g., fats, spices, acidic foods), eating food without chewing it enough (eating too fast), drinking soft drinks or abusing alcohol, and excessive stress or emotions.
Aerophagy is caused by a large amount of air in the stomach that causes swelling and pain in the intestine and rash. It usually occurs if you swallow too much air during your meals or when you swallow during the day, or if you chew gum or smoke. Pregnant women are more likely to suffer from aerophagy.
Irritable bowel syndrome (or functional colopathy) manifests as intestinal pain, as well as bloating, flatulence and diarrhea. The triggering factors are often the same as for dyspepsia, and pain is caused by the rate at which food progresses in the colon (too slow or too fast). Certain foods may promote pain (dry vegetables, cabbage, garlic, onion, fennel, celery, radish, leeks, artichokes, fries, fatty meats, sauces and fermented cheeses).
Although functional digestive disorders are generally benign, some signs require consultation with your health care provider:
Brutal onset of digestive disorders with no obvious cause
Very intense abdominal pain
If symptoms persist or are too disruptive
If symptoms occur after getting back from a trip
If symptoms occur after taking a new medication
Difficulties with swallowing or pain when swallowing
Nausea or vomiting resulting in food intolerance
Sudden weight loss
Blood in vomit or stool
Dehydration (cramps, hollow eyes, infrequent need to urinate)
We can all suffer from the occasional digestive disorder, but some people are more at risk:
Pregnant women (the uterus may touch the intestine and stomach during pregnancy, and hormonal changes often cause constipation, dyspepsia or heartburn)
People who are into endurance sports (dehydration, poor diet, vascular disorders)
People with anxiety or depression
People with other chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, migraine and hypothyroidism
Diseases of the Digestive System
There are many diseases of the digestive system and they can be caused by multiple factors. Below is information on the causes, symptoms and complications of the most common diseases.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Pathology (GERD)
It occurs when some of the stomach contents rise into the esophagus (the tube connecting the mouth to the stomach). The stomach produces gastric juices, very acidic substances that help digest food. However, the esophageal wall is not designed to withstand the acidity of the stomach contents. Reflux causes inflammation of the esophagus, resulting in burning and irritation. Over time, it can result in lesions in the esophagus.
An impairment of the lower esophageal sphincter usually causes gastric reflux. Located at the junction of the esophagus and stomach, this sphincter opens to allow the ingested food to pass through and then closes to prevent it from coming back up. When this sphincter dilates at an inopportune time, the stomach content rises to the esophagus and there is a reflux.
Gastroesophageal reflux can also be linked to hiatal hernia. In this case, the upper part of the stomach (located at the junction of the esophagus) “comes up” with the esophagus into the rib cage through the orifice of the diaphragm (the hiatal orifice).
A burning sensation behind the sternum, that radiates into the throat
Acidic or bitter taste in the mouth
Hoarse voice, especially in the morning
Chronic sore throat
Chronic cough, frequent hiccups
Loss of tooth enamel
Inflammation (esophagitis) causing esophageal lesions which are responsible for ulcers (or wounds) on the wall (may cause hemorrhage)
Narrowing of the diameter of the esophagus (peptic stricture), which causes difficulty swallowing and pain
Barrett’s esophagus, a replacement of the esophageal wall cells with cells that normally develop in the intestine (risk of esophageal cancer)
Chronic cough, hoarse voice
Cancer of the esophagus or larynx
Called a gastric ulcer if it is located in the stomach, and duodenal if it forms in the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine), this ulcer is an erosion that penetrates deeply into the wall of the digestive track. It is often painful because it comes into direct contact with the acid present in the digestive tract.
Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a bacterium that survives acidity, is the leading cause of ulcers (causes 60-80% of stomach ulcers and 80-85% of duodenal ulcers). It invades and disturbs the mucus layer that normally protects the stomach and small intestine from acidity.
Non-steroid or NSAID anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g. aspirin, ibuprofen) are the second most common cause of ulcers in the digestive tract. The combination of an H. Pylori bacterial infection and anti-inflammatory use increases the risk of synergistic ulcers (the risk is 60 times greater).
Excessive acid production by the stomach (hyperacidity), due to smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, major stress, or a hereditary predisposition can also cause ulcers.
A recurring burning sensation in the upper abdomen
In the case of stomach ulcers, the pain is aggravated by eating or drinking
In the case of duodenal ulcers, the pain lessens when eating, but increases from 1 to 3 hours after eating and when the stomach is empty (e.g., during the night)
The feeling of getting full quickly
Rashes and bloating
Sometimes there are no symptoms before a hemorrhage occurs
The ulcer may cause hemorrhage inside the digestive tract (vomiting of blood or blood in the stool)
A hole in the wall of the digestive tract that can worsen and cause peritonitis (medical emergency)
Hiatal hernia occurs when the stomach comes up in part through a small opening called the esophageal hiatus, located in the diaphragm, the respiratory muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen. There are two main types of hiatal hernia:
Sliding hiatal hernia or type I, which accounts for about 85 to 90% of cases. The upper part of the stomach, the junction between the esophagus and the stomach known as the “cardia”, rises into the chest, causing a burning sensation related to gastroesophageal reflux.
Paraesophageal or rolling hernia or type II. The junction between the esophagus and stomach remains in place below the diaphragm, but the largest part of the stomach “rolls” over and passes through the esophageal hiatus, forming a kind of pocket. This hernia usually causes no symptoms, but can be severe in some cases.
The exact causes of hiatal hernia are not clearly known. In some cases, it is congenital (present at birth) and caused by an abnormality of the hiatus that is too broad, or the entire diaphragm that is poorly enclosed.
However, the vast majority of these hernias appear at some point in life and are more frequent among the elderly. The elasticity and stiffness of the diaphragm seem to decrease with age and the hiatus tends to widen, allowing the stomach to rise more easily. In addition, structures that attach the cardia (the gastroesophageal junction) to the diaphragm, and that keep the stomach in place, also change with age.
Certain risk factors, such as obesity or pregnancy, may also be associated with hiatal hernia.
Sliding Hiatal Hernia
It can sometimes cause or worsen gastroesophageal reflux, so its symptoms are similar to reflux:
Burning sensations that come up along the esophagus (acid reflux)
Bad taste in the mouth
A recurring cough
Sore throat or hoarseness
Paraesophageal Hiatal Hernia
It does not cause heartburn, no other symptoms or only intermittent discomfort.
The most common symptoms are:
Chest or gastric pain, such as stomach cramps
A feeling of heaviness and bloating after meals giving the impression of having eaten too much
Respiratory discomfort, shortness of breath caused by compression of the lungs through the stomach
Anemia caused by minimal but continuous bleeding
Vesicular Lithiasis and Biliary Colic
Vesicual lithiasis is the formation of stones within the gallbladder, the organ that stores bile secreted by the liver. Theses stones look like little pebbles. In most cases, they are composed of crystallized cholesterol.
The shape, size and number of stones (there may be several hundred) differ from one individual to another. They can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball.
Biliary lithiasis, or gallbladder stones, is quite widespread and affects 2 to 3 times more women than men. Starting at age 70, 10% to 15% of men are affected, as well as between 25% and 30% of women. The risk of gallbladder stones increases with age, reaching almost 60% after age 80, likely due to decreased effectiveness of bladder contractions. Stones only result in complications for 20% of people.
A hepatic colic or biliary colic attack is caused by the passage of a gallstone into the gallbladder, temporarily blocking it and momentarily preventing the bile from draining. These attacks can last an average of 30 minutes to 4 hours. Pain fades when the gallstone dislodges itself, allowing the bile to flow again. An attack can occur at any time of day with no triggering event.
Cholesterol gallstones are formed when:
There is too much cholesterol in the bile
There is not enough bile salt in the bile
The gallbladder does not contract regularly (the bladder is referred to as “lazy”)
It is not clear what triggers the formation of the gallstones, but various risk factors have been identified, with obesity being the most common.
In the vast majority of cases, biliary lithiasis does not cause symptoms. Gallstones are therefore discovered when examining the bladder, most often with an ultrasound.
When gallbladder stones cause symptoms, you may feel:
Hard, intense and ongoing pain, grinding or twisting in nature, felt in the middle or upper right hand corner of the abdomen. Pain may radiate towards the right shoulder and shoulder blade
Nausea and vomiting
Diverticulosis and Diverticulitis
From the age of 40, diverticula can form in the large intestine. These are small outer protrusions, like small “pockets” the size of a marble, located in different locations in the large intestine. Diverticulosis mainly affect the colon or large intestine. However, diverticula can be found throughout the entire digestive tract, including the esophagus, stomach and small intestine.
Diverticulitis is an inflammation of the diverticula associated with an infection. Diverticulosis is a common phenomenon, and in western countries it is found in about 50% of people over the age of 60. Most of the time, diverticula do not cause any symptoms. They are often discovered during a routine examination for other digestive problems. However, diverticulitis (inflammation and infection of a diverticula) causes severe pain.
Diverticula form when areas of weakness in the colon wall stretch under pressure. If the pressure causes a small lesion on the wall of the diverticula, an infection may occur. A sedentary lifestyle with no physical activity and a diet with not enough fibre are often involved.
There are no symptoms with diverticulosis. However, when a diverticula gets inflamed or infected, it is called diverticulitis.
Intense and sudden pain at the bottom of the abdomen on the left hand side. Sometimes the pain is moderate, variable and gradually increases over several days
* Abdominal sensitivity
* Constipation or diarrhea.
Appendicitis is a sudden inflammation of the appendix — a small worm-shaped protrusion located at the beginning of the large intestine, on the lower right side of the abdomen. It most often occurs between the ages of 10 and 30. It affects one in 15 people, and slightly more often in men than in women.
Appendicitis must be treated promptly or the appendix could burst. This can cause peritonitis, which is an infection of the peritoneum, the thin wall that surrounds the abdominal cavity and contains the intestines. In some cases, peritonitis can be fatal and requires emergency medical treatment.
Appendicitis is often the result of a fecal or mucous obstruction. The appendix then becomes swollen, colonized with bacteria and may eventually become necrotic.
Initial pain symptoms usually occur near the navel and gradually progress to the lower right hand side of the abdomen
Pain gradually increases over a period of 6 to 12 hours. It ends up halfway between the navel and pubic bone on the right side of the abdomen.
When you press on the abdomen near the appendix and suddenly release the pressure, the pain gets worse. Coughing, exertion such as walking or even breathing can also worsen the pain
Pain is often accompanied by the following symptoms:
Nausea or vomiting
Loss of appetite
Constipation, diarrhea or gas
Bloating or rigidity of the abdomen
Chronic Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBD)
IBD is a term used to define chronic inflammatory bowel disorders, including:
Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory disease of the digestive system, which develops in spurts (or attacks) and remission phases. It is characterized primarily by abdominal pain and diarrhea, which can last for several weeks or months. Fatigue, weight loss and even malnutrition may occur if no treatment is undertaken. In some cases, non-digestive symptoms that affect the skin, joints or eyes may be associated with the disease.
In the case of Crohn’s disease, inflammation can affect any part of the digestive tract, from the mouth to anus. But most often, it settles at the junction of the small intestine and colon (large intestine).
The exact causes of inflammation are unknown and there are likely several, involving genetic, autoimmune and environmental factors.
Although Crohn’s disease is not entirely genetic, some genes may increase the risk of developing it. As with many other diseases, it appears that a genetic predisposition combined with environmental or lifestyle factors triggers the disease.
Like ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease has characteristics of autoimmune disease. Researchers believe that inflammation of the digestive tract is linked to an excessive immune response of the body against viruses or bacteria in the intestine.
It has been noted that the incidence of Crohn’s disease is higher in industrialized countries and has been increasing since 1950. This suggests that environmental factors, likely related to the Western lifestyle, might have a significant influence on the onset of the disease. However, no specific factors have yet been identified. However, several avenues are under consideration.
Frequent abdominal pain and cramps, which worsen after meals
Chronic diarrhea (lasting more than 2 weeks)
Fatigue and general discomfort
Low appetite and weight loss, even with a balanced diet
Blood in the stool, sometimes in large quantities (hemorrhaging)
Mucus in the stool. This mucus is threaded and has the consistency of an egg white
Nausea and vomiting.
A mild fever (38ºC to 40ºC)
Ulcerative colitis, like Crohn’s disease, is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) of the colon and rectum. Whereas Crohn’s disease can occur anywhere in the digestive tract and reach deep tissues, ulcerative colitis has a superficial impact on the mucous membrane, which begins in the rectum and moves up the colon.
The disease is diagnosed mostly in people between the ages of 30 and 40, but can occur at any age. Both men and women are affected in nearly the same proportion.
Ulcerative colitis is caused by an impairment of the immune system that attacks the cells of its own body.
Scientists believe that the inflammation of the colorectal mucosa is caused by an excessive immune response against viruses or bacteria in the gut. The most likely hypothesis is that this autoimmune reaction would be directed against the “harmless” bacteria normally present in the digestive tract (intestinal flora).
Ulcerative colitis may also be linked to unclear environmental factors. Food stress and intolerance can trigger symptoms in some people, but these factors are not the cause of the disease.
Symptoms appear in attacks:
Painful abdominal cramps, especially in the lower belly
Blood in the stool
Frequent bowel movements, even at night
An urgent need to defecate, even if there are few or no stools to evacuate (rectal tenesmus)
Weight loss due to reduced appetite and poor absorption of nutrients into the intestine
An obstruction of the digestive tract. Chronic inflammation may cause thickening of the digestive tract wall, leading to partial or total blockage of the digestive tract
Ulcers in the wall of the digestive tract
Colon dilation and puncture
Wounds around the anus (fistulas, deep cracks or chronic abscesses)
Rare but sometimes severe bleeding in the digestive track
People with Crohn’s disease in the colon have a slightly increased risk of developing colon cancer
Delayed growth and puberty in children and adolescents
Other health problems such as arthritis, skin conditions, inflammation of the eyes, oral ulcers, kidney stones or gallstones
Celiac disease is a chronic bowel disease triggered by gluten consumption, a mixture of protein contained in certain cereals (e.g. wheat, barley, rye). For a person with this disease, gluten ingestion causes an abnormal immune response in the small intestine, which causes inflammation and damage to the intestinal wall. If inflammation persists, the damaged intestine becomes unable to absorb certain nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Malnutrition can result despite normal nutrition.
The term “gluten intolerance” is often used to describe it, but celiac disease is not food intolerance, it is an abnormal immune system response.
The causes of celiac disease are not yet fully known. An impairment of the immune system linked to a genetic predisposition appears to promote its development. Gluten exposure to the intestine, known as the primary trigger, triggers an immune process that damages the intestinal mucosa, resulting in nutrient malabsorption.
Based on current research, almost all individuals with celiac disease have the HLA-type genes DQ2 or DQ8, but other genes may also be responsible.
Without the adoption of a gluten-free diet, celiac disease, in its most serious forms, can have several health consequences. The most common complications are related to poor absorption of nutrients in the intestine:
Malnutrition (caused by nutrient malabsorption in the intestine)
Anemia (caused by poor iron absorption)
Osteoporosis (caused by poor absorption of calcium and vitamin D)
Kidney stones (low risk of kidney stones which are caused by abnormal oxalate absorption)
Gastroenterology is the medical specialty responsible for the study and management of the digestive tract. In research, major advances have been made in recent years in the diagnosis, treatment and exploration of digestive diseases.
Biron offers all the state-of-the-art medical radiology tests needed to help your health care provider diagnose your digestive disorders.
If you have any questions or need more information, please don’t hesitate to call our customer service number at 1 800 463-7674.