The gastrointestinal (GI) system encompasses many different facets of overall health. Certain diseases, such as diabetes, impact how your GI track performs.
Even in the absence of disease, less-than-optimal GI functioning can have a significant impact on your well-being. “Let's face it, eating and elimination are what we all do every day. If there are problems in those areas, it can have a significant effect on quality of life,” states Johanna “Jo” Taniguchi, Gastroenterology Provider at Pullman Regional Hospital.
When Should You See a GI Specialist?
It might seem difficult to know when an upset stomach or other problem needs medical attention. Per Taniguchi, certain symptoms always require an evaluation. For example, black or bloody bowel movements or suddenly losing a great deal of weight without meaning to. Any distinct change in elimination habits, such as constipation, diarrhea, or repeated vomiting, is an indication a GI evaluation is the necessary next step. If you’re experiencing persistent GI-related issues, despite medication or lifestyle intervention, you should also see a GI physician.
“Some of the most common things we see are persistent abdominal pain, as well as complaints of bloating, heartburn, nausea, diarrhea, and constipation. Those are what we frequently see in the GI department,” adds Taniguchi.
Keeping Cancer at Bay
Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States, and it's the second leading cause of cancer death. Most often, these cases are preventable through regular screening. Currently, recommendations advise individuals get their first colonoscopy at age 45 (previous recommendations were at age 50) if they do not have any history of colon cancer or additional risk factors.
“This has changed because we're seeing more cancer in those under the age of 50. Now, this could be due to better screening, but the data seems to show that even taking that into account the rates have gone up,” explains Taniguchi. “Screening for colon cancer is ideally done with colonoscopy, which is a prevention test. We're looking for things in the colon that we know could become cancer in the future.”
In some cases, stool testing may be appropriate. However, it’s important to have that discussion and get all the pertinent information from your GI physician.
Fiber, Fiber, and More Fiber
One simple way for individuals to improve their GI health is to increase their intake of dietary fiber. Fiber has been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer, as well as improve conditions like diverticulitis and irritable bowel syndrome.
“Most of us do not eat enough dietary fiber,” cautions Taniguchi. “Recommendations for adults are to eat 20 to 30 grams of fiber a day, and many require more. Just to provide some examples, one slice of wheat bread has two grams of fiber. One cup of oatmeal has five. One cup of black beans or lentils has 15 grams of fiber. So, there's a wide variety of foods we can include in our diet to try and increase it. Fiber is the best way to improve the function of the colon.”
If individuals are not getting enough fiber—or if they’re eating a high-fiber diet and not getting the results they want—adding a fiber supplement can be very helpful (e.g. Metamucil, Benefiber).
Move Your Body, Move Your Bowels
Another way to improve GI health is to move one’s body. Individuals who have been bedridden for long periods of time often attest to a positive impact on their bowel health after becoming mobile again.
“When you move your body, you move your colon, and it helps everything work better. Bowel function is one of the reasons we, as nurses, get you up after surgery and get you moving as soon as possible,” shares Taniguchi.
Could Lactose Be to Blame?
Certain populations encounter a higher incidence of lactose intolerance, including those of African, Latino, and Asian descent—as do individuals who have a genetic disposition. Even someone who has never had trouble with dairy previously might start to develop troubles as they age.
“Most of us will not metabolize lactose as well as we could. It's a very large molecule. It has to be broken down by the gut, and we're just not as good at that as we age,” says Taniguchi. “This can cause bloating, gas, diarrhea. So, that's one of the first foods I will eliminate from somebody's diet if they're having uncomfortable symptoms.” Alternatives to traditional dairy milk include oat, rice, almond, or cashew.
The Gut-Brain Connection
While GI-associated symptoms are physically unpleasant, anything related to gut health may also sneakily impact brain health as well. “Our gut, the microbiome, needs a wealth of healthy bacteria,” warns Taniguchi. “There are new studies showing poor microbiome health can even affect levels of depression. We don't have studies that really quantify exactly what those effects are. But, anecdotally, we know they impact many areas of life—not just our eating and elimination.”
Her best advice? If you’re not feeling well, and you suspect your GI system might be to blame, contact your primary care physician for a referral.
Meet Jo Taniguchi and learn more about the services she provides at Pullman Surgical Associates, a part of the Pullman Regional Hospital Clinic Network.
Listen to an in-depth conversation on this topic with Johanna “Jo” Taniguchi, Gastrointestinal Care Provider at Pullman Regional Hospital