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Digestive System

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What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?


As infuriating as it is, and despite the fact that Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a very serious problem to people who suffer from it, it really isn't treated as such by
many doctors, medical researchers, and the general public. You may even have friends and family dismiss your problem as "all in your head." It's up to you to educate these people, and then dump them if they persist in their ignorance at the expense of your health!

You deserve support, con­cern, and consideration for your problem. IBS may not be "serious" in that it will not kill you, but an attack can be so painful you wish you'd die.
First of all, realize that you are not alone. IBS is estimated to affect fifteen to twenty percent of all Americans, primarily (but certainly not exclusively) women. This is at least thirty-five million Americans, and half of them have never even seen a physician for their symptoms. Despite this, IBS is still the most frequently seen illness by gastroenterologists, and is one the top ten diagnoses made by U.S. physicians. It is also. incredibly, the second leading cause of worker absenteeism (behind only the common cold). These are pretty amazing statistics for a disorder that many people have never even heard of.

Interestingly, because Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a "functional" disorder, you can't actually be tested for it. Rather, it is determined by a diagnosis of exclusion. This is because there are no structural, inflammatory, biochemical, or infectious abnormalities present in IBS. In other words, when IBS patients are examined by doctors, there is no physical problem to be found. So, are you just imagining your symptoms? No! You absolutely are not. A func­tional disorder simply means that the problem is an altered physiological function (that is, the way your body works), rather than something that has an identifiable origin behind it. In other words, while an IBS attack and its resulting symptoms are clearly visible as physical manifestations, the underlying cause behind these symptoms is not. The root of the prob­lem in IBS sufferers cannot yet be identified by yielding a positive result from any existing medical tests. What then, precisely, is wrong with the way your body works if you have IBS?

It can be difficult (and until recently, it was downright impossible) to find explicit scientific explanations for the precise bodily mechanisms behind Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Because this information is still limited in its availability, and because it means that IBS is indisputably a physical problem. Simply put, the brain-gut interaction of people with IBS influences their bowel pain perception and motility. In a nutshell, the processing of pain infor­mation within the central nervous system varies between normal individu­als and those of us with IBS, with the result that we can experience even normal GI contractions as painful. The interactions between our brains, central nervous systems, and GI tracts are just not functioning properly. We have colons that react to stimuli that do not affect normal colons, and our reactions are much more severe. The end result is heightened pain sensitivity and abnormal gut motility, in the form of irregular or increased GI muscle contractions.

It is this gut overreaction and altered pain perception that cause the lower abdominal cramping and accompanying diar­rhea and/or constipation that characterize Irritable Bowel Syndrome.Interestingly, the origins of IBS may really be in our brains, and not inour bowels. Given that for many years people with IBS were dismissively told their problem was "all in their heads," it's ironic that, in the end, this may be factually true! The underlying problem might well be in our brains-but it's absolutely not in our imaginations. Why are we the chosen not-so-few? No one really yet knows exactly why some people develop IBS and others don't.

There is mounting evidence that for some IBS sufferers the condition is precipitated by some type of grievous insult to the gut; dysentery, food poisoning, intestinal flu, abdominal surgery, even pregnancy. The theory goes that even after full physical recovery from these traumatic events, nerves within the gut retain a "memory" of the trauma and remain hypersensitive to further stimulation, as well as making Irritable Bowel Syndrome prone to subsequent overreaction. You likely know if you experienced any abdominal trauma immediately prior to the onset of your IBS symptoms, and if you did it's probably nice to have a logical explanation for what has happened to your GI tract and why. There are those of us who are exceptions to this theory, however, who suffered no gut injury prior to the onset of IBS symptoms. and we're still patiently waiting for our explanation.


The Digestive process:

Food, as it is eaten, is not in a form that the body can use as nourishment. It must be changed into smaller molecules of nutrients that can be absorbed into the blood and carried to cells throughout the body. Digestion is the process by which food is broken down into its smallest parts so that the body can use it to build and nourish cells and to provide energy. Digestion involves the mixing of food, its movement through the digestive tract, and the chemical breakdown of the large molecules of food into smaller molecules. Digestion begins in the mouth, with chew­ing and swallowing.  Two types of nerves help to control the action of the digestive system. Extrinsic (outside) nerves come to the digestive organs from the brain or from the spinal cord, and they trigger the release of the chemicals acetyl­choline and adrenaline. Acetylcholine causes the muscles of the digestive organs to squeeze with more force, and increases the transit speed of mat­ter through the digestive tract. Adrenaline relaxes the muscles of the stomach and intestine and decreases the flow of blood to these organs.

Intrinsic (inside) nerves, which make up a very dense network embedded in the walls of the esophagus. stomach, small intestine, and colon are triggered to act when the walls of the hollow digestive organs are stretched by food. In this regard they are rather like the strings of a musi­cal instrument, which will play different notes depending on their ten­sion. The varying tension levels of the intrinsic nerves trigger similarly varying reactions. Instead of sounding different notes they release many different substances, and either speeds up or delays the movement of food and the production of juices by the digestive organs. As you can guess, the key roles of these extrinsic and intrinsic nerves in the GI tract help explain why stress has such a powerful effect on the digestive tract, and thus IBS.

The hollow organs of the digestive system, such as the stomach and colon, contain muscles that enable
their walls to move. The movement of organ walls can propel food and liquid and also can mix the contents with­in each organ. The typical movement of the
esophagus, stomach, and intes­tine is called peristalsis. The action of peristalsis looks like an ocean wave moving through the muscle. The muscle of the organ
produces a narrow­ing and then propels the narrowed portion slowly down the length of the organ. These waves of narrowing push the food and fluid in front of
them through each hollow organ.

The first major muscle movement occurs when food or liquid is swal­lowed. Although beginning to swallow is a voluntary action,
once the swal­low begins it becomes involuntary and proceeds under control of the nerves. The esophagus is the organ into which the swallowed food is pushed.
It connects the throat above with the stomach below. At the junc­tion of the esophagus and stomach, there is a ring-like muscle that closes the passage between
the two organs. However, as the food approaches the closed ring, the muscle relaxes and allows the food to pass. The food then enters the stomach, which has
three tasks to do.