GI Blues: Debunking the Myths of Tummy Troubles

By Maureen Sangiorgio

This time of year, after spending all week dealing with crushing deadlines, I like to treat myself to a double scoop of pumpkin ice cream at Crystal Spring Farm in Schnecksville. I’ve tried them all, and theirs is my favorite. I just have to remember to take along my Lactaid tablets. I’m lactose intolerant, and if I consume dairy products without Lactaid, things can get pretty ugly very quickly.

I remember while growing up, that my Uncle Pete was lactose intolerant. My family told me that those of us of European ancestry are at higher risk. Years later, when I was diagnosed, I did some research, and found out that’s really not true. According to the National Dairy Council, about 12% of the general population is lactose intolerant, while only 8% of European Americans have the condition. African-Americans have the highest risk, at about 20%. Here are some other myths dispelled about common gastrointestinal problems.

Acid Reflux

Acid reflux occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter opens spontaneously, or does not close properly and whatever is in your stomach go up into the esophagus. Acid reflux is also called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) because digestive juices, which are really acids, rise up with the food. The sphincter is a ring of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus that acts like a valve between the esophagus and stomach.

When acid reflux occurs, whatever you just ate or drank can be tasted in the back of your mouth. When refluxed stomach acid touches the lining of the esophagus it can feel like heartburn or acid indigestion. The main symptom of GERD in adults is frequent heartburn, or a burning-type pain in the lower part of the mid-chest, behind the breast bone, and in the mid-abdomen. “If you experience these symptoms for more than fourteen days, whether or not you are taking antacids, it’s important to see your physician,” says Sean Lacey, M.D., Chief, Division of Gastroenterology, Lehigh Valley Health Network. “Your symptoms could be masking a more serious underlying problem, such as gastric cancer or Barrett’s Esophagus.”

MYTH: Milk soothes the burn

FACT: “It may be helpful for some people to [drink] milk to help buffer stomach acid, especially if they take medicines without eating something,” says Dr. Lacey. “But, for most people, milk will not help lower and control the acidic environment of the stomach.” Recent research has also found that the fat in [milk] can also cause the stomach to secrete more acid, making matters worse.  “It is also a myth that drinking milk will cure an ulcer,” says Ahmed Hasan, M.D., M.P.H., Chief of Gastroenterology at Blue Mountain Health System and Westfield Hospital. “Actually, it can make an ulcer worse.”

Self-help tips for acid reflux include eating smaller meals more frequently, avoiding heavy meals later in the evening, and keeping a food diary to identify triggers.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a problem that affects the large intestine. It can cause abdominal cramping, bloating and a change in bowel habits. Some people with the disorder have constipation, while others have diarrhea. Some even have both, and go back and forth between constipation and diarrhea. Although IBS can cause a great deal of discomfort, it does not harm the intestines.

No one knows the exact cause of IBS, and there is no specific test for IBS. However, your doctor may run tests to be sure you don’t have other diseases. These tests may include stool sampling tests, blood tests and x-rays. “Your doctor may also do a test called a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy,” says Lacey. Most people diagnosed with IBS can control their symptoms with diet, stress management and medicine.

MYTH: IBS affects only older women

FACT: According to the American Gastroenterological Association, IBS is one of the most common disorders diagnosed by doctors. Up to 20 percent of U.S. adults have IBS symptoms. IBS is frequently diagnosed in people younger than 50, generally around age 35. Granted, IBS does tend to occur more frequently in women. Researchers also have found that women with IBS may have more symptoms during their menstrual periods, suggesting that reproductive hormones can increase IBS symptoms. But there are many men diagnosed with IBS as well.

Colon Cancer

Cancer of the colon or rectum is also called colorectal cancer. In the United States, it is the fourth most common cancer in men and women, according to the National Cancer Institute. Caught early, it has a five-year survival rate of about 90%, making it very curable.

Colon cancer is more common in people over 50, and the risk increases with age. Your risk increases if you have

• Polyps – growths inside the colon and rectum that may become cancerous

• A diet that is high in fat

• A family history or personal history of colorectal cancer

• Ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease

Symptoms can include blood in the stool, narrower stools, a change in bowel habits and general stomach discomfort. However, you may not have symptoms at first, so screening is important. Everyone who is 50 or older should be screened for colorectal cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Colonoscopy is one method that your doctor can use to screen for colorectal cancer. Treatments for colorectal cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or a combination.

MYTH: More men get colon cancer than women

FACT: “Colon cancer rates are about the same for both men and women,” says Lacey. “The real shame here is that while many companies today are willing to pay for their employees to get tested, only 60% of the people that should get screened for colon cancer are actually taking the time to get screened. If you are over the age of 50, schedule a colonoscopy once every 10 years, a sigmoidoscopy once every five years, a barium enema every five years, and checking the stool for blood each year. If you have a first-degree relative with colon cancer, or pre-cancerous polyps, talk to your doctor, as you might have to be screened earlier. Like all cancers, early detection of colon cancer increases your survival rate. If caught at the earliest stage, stage 1, colon cancer boasts a 90% survival rate.”

Another myth is that if there is no history of colon cancer in your family, you need not be concerned about it. “That’s not true, because of all the new cases diagnosed each year, only about 25% have a family history.”

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