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Updated 08 July 2013

You and your digestive system

Learn more about the organs in the digestive system and what could go wrong.

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The digestive system helps with the digestion, absorption, transport and excretion of nutrients.

The organs of the digestive tract can be adversely affected by illness. What are the most common illnesses and how can you identify them?

Stomach: Stomach ulcers and gastritis
Gastritis is a general term used to describe inflammation of the mucosa (lining) of the stomach. The two main forms of gastritis are acute gastritis and chronic gastritis

Obvious signs of acute gastritis are vomiting blood and passing blood in the stools. In chronic gastritis, the inflammation in the stomach is caused by specific inflammatory cells that are generally present in chronic inflammation.

Colon: Colorectal cancer
This cancer which affects the large bowel (colon) and the rectum is common in Western countries. Long-standing inflammatory bowel disease, particularly ulcerative colitis, increases the risk of developing this cancer. Up to 25% of people with colorectal cancer have a family history of the disease. It is therefore vital that people with a family history inform their doctors as regular screening tests (a colonoscopy in particular) will be able to detect early warning signs.

Liver: Hepatitis
The liver is one of the largest organs in the body and receives one third of the blood supply (1500 ml/min). The liver has many complex functions. These include the formation of bile to help digestion of food, the production of enzymes to convert food to energy, the production of plasma proteins and blood clotting factors, and the filtering and detoxification of the blood.

"Hepatitis" simply means that the liver is inflamed. Hepatitis can be either obstructive or viral. In South Africa, the hepatitis A, B and C viruses are the most common causes of hepatitis. Signs that indicate inflammation include pain in the right upper abdomen; fever; nausea and vomiting; and a yellow tinge to the eyes and skin (jaundice).

Pancreas: Diabetes
Diabetes, correctly called diabetes mellitus, is a disorder of carbohydrate metabolism. Common symptoms of diabetes include excessive thirst; weight loss; tiredness and excessive urination.

In Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas is no longer able to produce the hormone insulin. Insulin is produced by the beta cells of the pancreas; it is secreted in response to an increased concentration of glucose in the blood, and is vital in controlling blood glucose levels. A person with diabetes cannot control their blood glucose and they become hyperglycaemic – meaning that they have abnormally high levels of glucose in the blood. Type 1 diabetes commonly develops before the age of 40, with a peak incidence around 14.

Type 2 diabetics initially develop insulin resistance resulting in high glucose levels in the blood. It is far more common than Type 1 diabetes and is strongly associated with obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, and abnormal lipid levels.

Gallbladder: Gallstones
The gallbladder is a small pear-shaped pouch about three to six inches long. Gallstones form when liquid stored in the gallbladder hardens into pieces of stone-like material. Many people with gallstones have no symptoms and are unaware they have them until the stones show up in tests performed for another reasons. When symptoms do develop it is usually because the gallbladder wall becomes inflamed or because the stones have moved out of the gallbladder and blocked the tube connected to the intestine. A typical gallstone "attack" may occur suddenly and often follows a fatty meal, frequently occurring during the night. The attack starts as a continuous upper abdomen pain that increases rapidly and lasts from 30 minutes to several hours. - (Health24, October 2007)

 
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