BY DAVID BUICE
The human digestive system is made up of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is something of an anatomical marvel. Our GI tract is a series of hollow organs, approximately 25 feet in length, including the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus, while the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas are the solid organs in the system.
How the Digestive System Works
Food moves through your digestive tract through a process called peristalsis. The large, hollow organs of your GI tract contain a layer of muscle that enables their walls to move, pushing food and liquid forward through the tract. Proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water are all nutrients your body needs. As peristalsis moves them through the GI tract, the digestive system breaks them into parts small enough to pass into the bloodstream and be used for energy, growth, and cell repair.
Minor Digestive Issues
Problems like constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, and gas are common digestive issues most of us suffer from occasionally. Generally, these tend to improve over time with the aid of over-the-counter medications. If the symptoms persist, it’s best to see your primary care physician for consultation and tests. If test results warrant it, your PCP may refer you to a gastroenterologist.
Highly Trained Specialist
A gastroenterologist is a medical specialist who, after finishing medical school, must complete a three-year residency in internal medicine, working alongside experienced gastroenterologists, followed by two to three years of additional training in the field.
Conditions commonly treated by gastroenterologists include colorectal cancer, Celiac disease, viral hepatitis, irritable bowel disease and inflammatory bowel disease, diverticulitis, gallbladder disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, cirrhosis, and GI infections, among others.
When to See a Gastroenterologist
Here are six signs indicating you should consider scheduling a consultation with a gastroenterologist.
Abnormal bowel movements – Persistent constipation or diarrhea could indicate serious GI issues such as a blockage, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis, to name a few.
Rectal bleeding – This can have many causes but generally indicates bleeding somewhere in the digestive tract, the cause of which needs to be found.
Frequent heartburn – This may be an indication of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or, at worst, esophageal cancer.
Age 50+ – The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) suggests that most individuals age 50 to 75 should be screened regularly for colorectal cancer, but African Americans should probably start screening at age 45.
Abdominal pain and bloating – Pain and bloating after nearly every meal, especially if accompanied by nausea or painful bowel movements, may well indicate the need to see a gastroenterologist.
Esophageal pain or difficult swallowing – In response to this problem, a gastroenterologist may perform a procedure known as an upper endoscopy to determine the cause and begin treatment.
Finally, if you’re not sure your GI issue warrants seeing a gastroenterologist, remember that any symptom you would characterize as persistent and/or severe deserves a