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Bowel diseases painful but can be managed

by Doris Penner

When a person occasionally suffers abdominal pain, feels bloated after eating, or has brief periods of diarrhea or constipation, it's usually blamed on some food that 'didn't agree with the stomach' and indeed, more often than not it passes and all is well. However, if these same symptoms persist and increase in intensity, perhaps affecting daily food intake or accompanied by fever and fatigue, it is time to visit your physician.

Chances are you may be suffering from a condition which falls into a group known as Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBD). The most commonly known ones are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, which have similar symptoms, but are quite distinct in the parts of the gastrointestinal tract that are affected and the complications that arise from the disease. While there are no known cures for the conditions, there are effective treatments available that can reduce symptoms and allow people with either condition to function well.

Crohn's disease causes inflammation, usually affecting the end of the small intestine (the ileum) and the beginning of the large intestine or colon, but it may affect any part of the digestive tract from the mouth to the anus (last section). Inflammation may be confined to the bowel wall which can lead to thickening and scarring, or more seriously, it may spread through the bowel wall, causing what is known as a fistula. What is interesting is that inflammation may skip parts of the intestine, leaving “normal” areas between diseased patches. 

Involves inner lining

Ulcerative colitis, on the other hand, is limited to the colon, usually beginning in the rectum and extending backward from there. Inflammation involves only the inner lining of the bowel.

Both diseases can be painful and debilitating, and symptoms a person experiences may not necessarily indicate whether it is Crohn's or ulcerative colitis. One can well imagine why those with either condition would suffer from abdominal pain and cramping. Often there is severe diarrhea because the inflamed colon can't absorb excess fluid, as well as blood in the stool since food moving through the digestive tract may cause the inflamed tissue to bleed. It is no surprise that reduced appetite and subsequent weight loss might occur (and in severe cases, malnutrition).

The question, of course, is what is the cause of these debilitating bowel conditions, and how can they be alleviated? Unfortunately, the exact causes of the diseases are not known—if they were, we would be wiser in preventing them. In the past, diet and stress were the suspected culprits, and although both may aggravate the conditions, they are not the cause of them. Currently researchers believe heredity plays a role, since particularly Crohn's is more common in people who have a family member with the disease. In other words, one or more genes may make some individuals more susceptible.

It seems a malfunctioning immune system may play the largest role. It appears in people who suffer from IBD, healthy or harmless bacteria which aid in digestion are mistaken for harmful invaders by the immune system which amounts an attack, causing inflammation. While this is a normal immune system response, the flare-up does not subside, and the result of this continuous microbial attack and impaired immune response is chronic inflammation, ulceration, thickening of the intestinal walls, eventually causing symptoms that have been noted.

Under the age of 30

It is interesting that IBD is more common in industrialized countries than in undeveloped countries, and more frequent in urban than in rural areas, leading to the conclusion that refined or processed foods may play a role. Crohn's disease can occur at any age, but most people who develop it are diagnosed before age 30.

While these diseases can't be cured, they can be managed. If you are experiencing symptoms of IBD, consult your physician sooner rather than later in order to mitigate the damage done by the inflammation—damage such as formation of ulcers or fistulas, for example. In the case of ulcerative colitis, if severe symptoms persist, the affected parts of the colon may be removed; in Crohn's, this is not possible.

Once the physician has diagnosed your condition using tests such as a colonoscopy or an MRI, the goal of medical treatment will be to reduce the inflammation which may involve treatment with anti-inflammatory drugs.

It should also be pointed out that a substance known as N-acetyl glucosamine found in the mucosal layer of the gastrointestinal tract is compromised in people who have an inflammatory bowel disease. Thus N-acetyl glucosamine (C-NAG for short), available in capsules is sometimes recommended to help repair tissues in the GI tract. Another product to be considered is L-glutamine powder which helps support the immune and digestive systems.