The main aim of the digestive system is to process the food we eat and drink in order to provide the body with its energy and nutrient needs, and then to deal with its waste products. The energy is needed to ensure our survival and to repair our body tissues.
The digestive tract starts at the mouth and ends at the anus.
Read more here about how the whole digestive system works from start to finish.
A lack of food can lead to starvation and a lack of nutrition can lead to malnutrition. An inability or reduced ability to absorb nutrients from the diet can lead to both starvation and/or malnutrition.
Digestive disorders are the cause of ill health for millions of people the world over and the causes and symptoms of these are numerous. They range from minor, such as slight heartburn or nausea after eating a big meal, to serious, such as colon cancer.
Symptoms of digestive diseases
Symptoms of digestive diseases can include diarrhoea, nausea, heartburn, vomiting, constipation, abdominal swelling, abdominal pain, flatulence, bleeding from the digestive tract, and loss of appetite, according to the Merck Manuals. The Merck Manuals also remind us that some disorders can affect several parts of the digestive system and not just one.
Here’s more about some of the main types of diseases that can affect the digestive system:
• Appendicitis is a bacterial inflammation of the appendix.
• Food poisoning can be caused by many different types of bacteria.
• Viral gastroenteritis is a inflammation of the stomach and intestines caused by a virus.
• Hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C all indicate an inflammation of the liver.
• Peptic ulcers are open sores that can develop on the lining of the oesophagus, stomach and small intestine.
Inflammatory and auto-immune conditions
• Gastritis is a group of conditions caused by an inflammation of the stomach lining.
• Haemorrhoids are swollen and inflamed veins in the anus and lower rectum.
• Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are both types of inflammatory disorders of the digestive tract.
• Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a common disorder affecting the large intestine.
• Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas.
Functional or structural problems
• Anal fissure refers to a tear in the mucosa (thin tissue layer) that lines the anus
• Anal fistula is a small channel between the end of the bowel and the skin close to the anus.
• Cirrhosis of the liver is a late stage of liver scarring.
• Coeliac disease is a chronic disorder caused by an intolerance to gluten.
• Constipation is infrequent bowel movements or stools that are hard to pass.
• Diarrhoea is the passing of loose and frequent stools.
• Diverticular disease describes a condition where small bulging "pockets" develop in the colon. These can get inflamed.
• Flatulence is the passing of wind or gas through the anus.
• Faecal incontinence is leakage from the bowel owing to poor bowel control.
• Gallstones are hard deposits in your gallbladder.
• Gastritis is a term used to describe inflammation of the lining of the stomach.
• Hiatal and abdominal hernias describe what happens when an organ pushes through the tissue that holds it in place.
• Indigestion, heartburn and Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome
• Intestinal obstruction is a blockage of the large or small intestine.
• Oral cancer
• Throat cancer
• Stomach cancer
• Liver cancer
• Pancreatic cancer
• Colorectal cancer
• Cancer of the anus and rectum
Symptoms of digestive disorders
Treating digestive disorders
Preventing digestive disorders
Reviewed by Dr Estelle Wilken (MBChB) (MMed Int) ,Senior Specialist, Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology, University of Stellenbosch and Tygerberg Hospital. February 2016.