Let’s take a moment to quickly review the human digestive system. This video takes us through the bowels of the human digestive system and explains why it’s all about surface area.
Disorders and Disease
Our digestive system is incredibly important: without it, we wouldn’t be able to get the nutrients we need to survive. Unfortunately, there are a lot of ways things can go wrong, and doctors today are still learning more about why things go wrong when they do. Two of the most common stomach troubles are lactose intolerance and ulcers.
Lactose intolerance is a condition characterized by indigestion caused by dairy products. It occurs when the absorptive cells of the small intestine do not produce enough lactase, the enzyme that digests the milk sugar lactose. In most mammals, lactose intolerance increases with age. In contrast, some human populations, most notably Caucasians, are able to maintain the ability to produce lactase as adults.
In people with lactose intolerance, the lactose in chyme is not digested. Bacteria in the large intestine ferment the undigested lactose, a process that produces gas. In addition to gas, symptoms include abdominal cramps, bloating, and diarrhea. Symptom severity ranges from mild discomfort to severe pain; however, symptoms resolve once the lactose is eliminated in feces.
The hydrogen breath test is used to help diagnose lactose intolerance. Lactose-tolerant people have very little hydrogen in their breath. Those with lactose intolerance exhale hydrogen, which is one of the gases produced by the bacterial fermentation of lactose in the colon. After the hydrogen is absorbed from the intestine, it is transported through blood vessels into the lungs. There are a number of lactose-free dairy products available in grocery stores. In addition, dietary supplements are available. Taken with food, they provide lactase to help digest lactose.
Ulcers: When the Mucosal Barrier Breaks Down
As effective as the mucosal barrier is, it is not a “fail-safe” mechanism. Sometimes, gastric juice eats away at the superficial lining of the stomach mucosa, creating erosions, which mostly heal on their own. Deeper and larger erosions are called ulcers.
Why does the mucosal barrier break down? A number of factors can interfere with its ability to protect the stomach lining. The majority of all ulcers are caused by either excessive intake of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including aspirin, or Helicobacter pylori infection.
Antacids help relieve symptoms of ulcers such as “burning” pain and indigestion. When ulcers are caused by NSAID use, switching to other classes of pain relievers allows healing. When caused by H. pylori infection, antibiotics are effective.
A potential complication of ulcers is perforation: Perforated ulcers create a hole in the stomach wall, resulting in peritonitis (inflammation of the peritoneum). These ulcers must be repaired surgically.