What role does “gut health” play in overall health?
The gastrointestinal tract runs through the entire body. Inside the GI tract is an entire biome–with more bacteria than there are cells in the human body. They are symbiotic–they help us digest our food and maintain the balance of fluids and electrolytes.
It is extremely complex. For example, the esophagus has a different ecosystem than the stomach, which is different than the intestine.
Yet our understanding of this biome and knowing how to manipulate it is very much in its infancy.
What are some of the more common issues in dealing with the gastrointestinal system?
We can diagnose and treat celiac sprue, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), Crohn’s Disease, peptic ulcers, gallstones, and other conditions.
It’s easier to diagnose these conditions today. In the 1960s and 70s, endoscopes were cumbersome and bulky. Today, endoscopes are widely available and effective, and the technicians are highly trained, with better anesthesia techniques.
Are there also new ways of treating these conditions?
The history of gastrointestinal disease is very interesting because we get to see how pharmaceutical and technical advances have really changed this field dramatically. We call that “bench to bedside” because they work on something at the research bench and then bring it to the bedside. The speed at which things go from bench to bedside now is astronomical. It used to be years, and now just look at what they’ve done with the COVID vaccine in a matter of months.
What are ways to maintain GI health?
First, eat a well-balanced diet. You don’t need to eat three big meals a day. People do fine eating once or twice.
-Avoid excessive use of antibiotics.
-Avoid over-reliance on over-the-counter pain relievers such as NSAID ibuprofens as found in Motrin, Advil, and Aleve. All are fine in moderation, but overuse can cause ulcers and wreak havoc on your GI tract.
-Maintain a healthy body weight. Obesity is skyrocketing, and almost every cancer has linkages to obesity. I want you to eat, drink, and be merry, but not with foods that cause you to gain weight.
I believe in the future there will be more of a plant-based diet for all of us. A high amount of meat consumption and saturated fats leads to poor gut health. I know that’s a hard sell, but even replacing 10 to 20% of meat consumption with a vegan diet leads to significant improvement.
What are some signs to look for that might indicate the need to seek medical help?
Ongoing rectal bleeding that is otherwise unexplained
Ongoing black stool that is unexplained
Unexplained weight loss
Any ongoing change in bowel habits that does not get better for several weeks
If any of these conditions persist, definitely see your primary care doctor and let them determine if there is a need to see a specialist. And most patients on Medicare do not need a referral.
What other recommendations do you have?
March is Colon Cancer Screening Month. Colonoscopies are still important to get, starting at age 50, or five years before the age a previous family member got colon cancer. I tell people colon cancer is “skin cancer of the colon.” We can shave off those slow-growing moles before they turn into tumors. And we now have a brand new bowel prep! You just swallow 24 pills and drink six bottles of water!
The sad part about colon cancer screening is that although 90% of Americans are eligible, less than half use those benefits. And a colonoscopy is both a diagnostic and preventive procedure; we not only can diagnose a polyp but also remove it at the same time.
For more information:
HCM Medical Clinic–Fredericksburg
Perry-Feller Professional Building
205 W. Windcrest
Fredericksburg, TX 78624