Your Digestive System: Separating Fact from Fiction


What causes ulcers? How can you relieve heartburn? Do simple gastric problems lead to cancer? Learn how to separate fact from fiction.

You've heard that stress causes ulcers? Not true.

The belief that stress causes ulcers is a common myth. And though scientists know a lot about the complex diseases that affect our digestive system, many wives tales still exist. Some folklore is harmless. But some can be dangerous if it keeps you from getting the right care.

Here are some common fallacies about digestive diseases.

1. Spicy food and stress cause stomach ulcers.
False. Spicy food and stress may make ulcer symptoms worse, but they do not cause ulcers. Most stomach ulcers are caused by infection with a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). Or they can be caused by using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen. Most ulcers caused by H. pylori can be treated with antibiotics.

Ulcers caused by NSAIDs can usually be treated by avoiding them and by taking medicines to heal the ulcer.

2. Smoking a cigarette helps relieve heartburn.
False. Cigarette smoking can lead to heartburn! Heartburn occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) relaxes. The LES is the muscle that connects the esophagus with the stomach. When it relaxes, it allows acid from the stomach to splash back into the esophagus. Cigarette smoking weakens the LES, which can cause heartburn.

3. Regularity means a bowel movement every day.
False. Many people think they are constipated if they don't have a bowel movement every day. There is no right number of daily or weekly bowel movements. Normally, healthy people have anywhere from three a day to three a week.

4. Regular use of enemas to treat constipation is harmless.
False. Using enemas regularly could be harmful. If you rely on regular enemas or laxatives to have a bowel movement, you should see a doctor. Over time, frequent enema use can harm the intestines and affect how they work. Most people get constipated from time to time. Usually it's because they don't eat enough fiber, drink enough water or get enough exercise. In most cases, constipation is temporary and not serious.

5. Irritable bowel syndrome can lead to cancer.
False. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) doesn't lead to other serious diseases, such as cancer. IBS causes gas, abdominal pain and diarrhea or constipation, or both. Although the syndrome can cause much pain and discomfort, it doesn't damage the digestive tract as some diseases do.

Talk to your doctor about your symptoms and possible treatments. Eating more high-fiber foods may help. Whole-grain breads and cereals, beans, fruits and vegetables are good sources of fiber. Keep a journal and write down any foods that seem to cause problems.

6. Diverticulosis is a rare and serious problem.
False. Most Americans older than 60 have diverticulosis, but only a small percentage have diverticulitis.

In diverticulosis, little sacs develop in the wall of the colon. These tend to appear and increase in number with age. Most people wouldn't know they had diverticula unless they had an x-ray or exam of their intestines. Fewer than 10 percent of people with diverticulosis develop problems, such as inflammation (diverticulitis), bleeding or perforation of the colon.

Doctors believe a low-fiber diet is the main cause of diverticular disease. The disease was first seen in the United States in the early 1900s, at about the same time Americans started eating processed foods.




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