List of Common Digestive Diseases

Doctor examining a woman's stomach.
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Digestive diseases can interfere with the daily lives of people. Some people may put up with the often painful and uncomfortable symptoms, but treatment is available to get treat digestive disorders or to provide relief so people can live relatively normal lives. Some of the diseases may lead to serious damage to the digestive tract if left untreated.



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Ulcers damage the lining of the stomach because of bacterial infections or adverse side effects of medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen or naporoxen, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Spicy foods and stress may aggravate ulcers, but do not cause them. Antibiotics or antacids usually alleviate problems long enough for minor ulcers to heal.

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Acid Reflux

Heartburn or acid indigestion results in stomach acid backing up into the esophagus to create a burning sensation or sour taste in the mouth. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) affects people who suffer acid reflux symptoms more than twice a week. Acid reflux occurs because the lower esophageal sphincter does not close properly. Some people may get more bouts of heartburn from certain foods, but each individual has different reactions to particular foods. Cigarette smoking contributes to heartburn by causing the esophageal sphincter to relax.


Celiac Disease

Celiac disease can affect children or adults. Symptoms include diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain, skin rash or a thinning of bones. In children it can cause growth failure. People with the disease are advised to eliminate foods with gluten, a protein that is found in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten damages the lining of the small intestine for people with the disease.


Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowl syndrome affects the muscles in the intestines. It can cause gas, abdominal pain, diarrhea or constipation. The syndrome can be painful and uncomfortable. It usually does not lead to further diseases. Most people can control symptoms through diet, stress management and medication.

Inflammatory Bowel Diseases

Inflammatory bowel diseases include Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. It leads to severe bowel problems, abdominal pain and malnutrition. Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis can be painful and debilitating. Medication can eliminate symptoms and prevent flare-ups. Surgery may be needed in some cases to repair the colon.



The disease occurs when pouches in the large intestine become infected and inflamed, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Symptoms may include severe abdominal pain often in the lower left side of the abdomen, constipation, diarrhea, nausea or fever. People with the disease are advised to eat more fiber to help with proper digestion.


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Fat gets a bad rap, but it's essential to your health. If your body isn't able to absorb fat from the food you eat, you're also not absorbing fat-soluble vitamins and other essential nutrients, which may lead to deficiencies and malnutrition. A few disorders are associated with problems with fat digestion and metabolism, including pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis and Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome. If you suspect you're not absorbing fat properly, consult your doctor.


Normal Fat Digestion and Metabolism

Fat digestion begins in the stomach, where the digestive enzyme lipase -- some in your saliva and some secreted in the stomach -- begins to break down the long chains of fat, known as triglycerides, into smaller pieces. The rest occurs in the small intestines, where additional lipase enzymes from the pancreas, along with bile, continue to break down the fat into monoglycerides so it can be absorbed. The monoglycerides facilitate the absorption and transportation of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, as well as phytochemicals, including lycopene and the carotenoids. In the body, the fat is used to maintain cell membranes and as a stored form of energy.


Fat Malabsorption

If you're not digesting and absorbing the fat in the food you eat, your body will give you a few hints. One of the tell-tale signs of fat malabsorption is steatorrhea, which is fatty stool that is foul-smelling, pale and greasy. The malabsorption also causes gas and bloating and sometimes diarrhea, too. Even though you may have been losing weight, the change in bowel movements is usually what prompts a visit to the doctor.



Cholestasis is a stop or slowdown in the flow of bile -- which is a substance that helps your body digest fat -- from the liver to the small intestines caused by an obstruction, such as gallstones, or an impairment, such as inflammation from liver disease. Because the bile isn't able to get to the small intestines, it can't assist in the digestion of fat, leading to malabsorption. The lack of bile also affects the absorption of calcium, vitamin D and vitamin K. If left untreated, it may affect bone health and increase risk of bleeding. Treatment of cholestasis depends on the cause and may include surgery or medication. Calcium and vitamin D supplements may also be given, but they aren't effective at preventing bone loss, according to the Merck Manual.



Pancreatitis, which is an inflammation of the pancreas, is a common cause of fat malabsorption. Pancreatitis may be caused by gallstones that irritate the pancreas leading to an acute inflammation of the large gland, but the fat malabsorption usually occurs in chronic pancreatitis, which may have a number of causes, including a genetic predisposition, heavy use of alcohol or high levels of fat in the blood. The chronic inflammation makes it difficult for the pancreas to secrete enough lipase to digest fat, leading to the malabsorption. Treatment requires supplementation with pancreatitic enzymes and a low-fat diet.

Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that affects the epithelial cells -- the cells that line the passageways inside the lungs, digestive system, liver and pancreas -- causing them to create a mucous so thick and sticky the body can't dispel it. In the pancreas, the thick mucous prevents the secretion of digestive enzymes into the intestines, leading to malabsorption of nutrients, especially fat. Like chronic pancreatitis, treatment for cystic fibrosis malabsorption includes digestive enzymes. However, because this is a disease that affects children, a high-calorie, high-fat diet is prescribed to help ensure calories needs are met for growth, along with vitamin and mineral supplements.

Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome

Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome is a rare condition characterized by the formation of tumors in the duodenum -- the first part of the small intestines -- and pancreas that release high amounts of gastrin, which is hormone that stimulates the stomach to release more acid. The high acidity causes ulcers to form in the duodenum and also obstructs the action of lipase, causing poor fat digestion. Treatment usually involves medication to decrease the acidity and surgery to remove the tumors. Diet doesn't affect the development or treatment of the condition, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.




Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.

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