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Health Matter 5/17: When it comes to digestive problems, women are more sensitive

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By: Kristina N. Katz, M.D.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that up to 70 million Americans are living with digestive disorders, such as acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome.

Women are affected more than men with gastrointestinal issues, and in fact, digestive problems are among the most common reasons why women visit the doctor.

If you are suffering from a digestive disorder, it’s important to see your doctor for a proper evaluation and diagnosis. Once diagnosed, digestive disorders can often be managed through lifestyle changes, medication or a combination of the two.

The Center for Digestive Health at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center (PMC) offers comprehensive gastrointestinal healthcare services that include advanced diagnostics, endoscopic therapies and advanced minimally invasive surgical procedures. The Center’s skilled clinical team works closely with each patient to develop a diagnosis and individualized treatment plan.

Hormones Play a Role

The digestive tract, commonly referred to as the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, runs from the mouth to the anus. It is comprised of muscles and organs that carry out the complex process of digesting food for the body to use for energy and cell repair.

Digestive diseases can occur anywhere in the digestive tract, including in the colon, esophagus, stomach, large and small intestines, liver, pancreas or gallbladder.

Common digestive disorders include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), celiac disease and gallstones. Other less common digestive disorders include GI cancers, inflammatory bowel disease, liver problems such as cirrhosis, amongst many others.

Because women have more sensitive GI tracts than men, due in part to hormonal differences, they are more likely to experience problems with digestion. In addition, pregnancy-related GI conditions account for a great deal of why women visit a gastroenterologist. Disorders of the pelvic floor, the group of muscles that support organs in the pelvis, are more common in women after childbirth and menopause, and can lead to constipation, abdominal discomfort and pelvic pain.

Physical and Emotional Toll

Whether you are dealing with the discomfort of constipation or the unpredictability of IBS, digestive disorders can take a toll on you physically and emotionally.

While the occasional upset stomach, gas or constipation is normal and should not be cause for concern, symptoms that occur over an extended period of time or increase in frequency may be a sign of a larger issue that warrants a visit to your doctor.

Symptoms of a digestive disorder vary and can include:

  • Abdominal pain and cramps
  • Excess gas
  • Bleeding
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Heartburn
  • Incontinence
  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Stomach or pelvic pain
  • Weight gain or loss

The National Institutes of Health recommends patients consult a doctor immediately if they experience bloody stools, changes in bowel habits, severe abdominal pain, weight loss that is unintentional or heartburn that does not dissipate after taking antacids.

An Accurate Diagnosis is Important

Many digestive diseases mimic each other, and an accurate diagnosis is necessary to effectively treat the disorder and address any related issues. Patients who experience digestive problems should see their doctor rather than self diagnose.

In addition to conducting a physical examination and reviewing your medical history, your doctor may also recommend certain imaging tests, such as endoscopic ultrasound and colonoscopy to help make a proper diagnosis.

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends that average-risk adults have a colonoscopy every 10 years starting at the age of 50. Those with a family history of serious digestive disorders or a personal history of digestive disease may be advised to start at an earlier age or have more frequent colonoscopies.

Healthy Living Matters

In addition to a colonoscopy and getting regular physicals, adopting an active and healthy lifestyle is key to keeping your digestive system healthy.

There are several things you can do to improve your digestion.

  • Eat a healthy diet. In general, choose foods that are high in fiber such as fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes and whole grains. However, some digestive disorders respond better to a low fiber diet.
  • Drink plenty of water. Water cleanses your digestive system, making it easier for your body to break down foods. A good goal is to consume eight glasses of water each day.
  • Avoid sugary drinks. Added sugars and sugar substitutes can actually make digestive problems worse.
  • Get regular exercise. Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity each week, plus strengthening activities.
  • Avoid eating for three hours before going to bed, and raising the head of your bed by about six to eight inches.
  • Quit smoking.

In cases where lifestyle changes are not enough to manage digestive disorders, medication may be recommended. If your doctor prescribes medication, it is important to take it as directed.

Tune In

Visit the Princeton Health on Demand UStream channel at http://www.ustream.tv/princetonhealthwhere you can watch a pre-recorded video to learn more about women and digestive health.

To find a physician with Penn Medicine Princeton Health, call (888) 742-7496 or visit www.princetonhcs.org.

Kristina N. Katz, M.D., is board certified in gastroenterology and internal medicine. She is a member of the medical staff at Penn Medicine Princeton Health. 

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