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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Health Center

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WebMD 5: Gastrointestinal Disorders

Our expert answers questions about the causes, treatment, and prevention of gastrointestinal disorders.

2. Which GI disorders are on the rise?

There's been a recent explosion of GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, and nobody really has a good explanation why. Clearly our diet has something to do with it. We weigh more as a population now than we did five or 10 years ago.

There's also a big uptick in the number of people diagnosed with celiac disease, and it's probably not so much on the rise but just being recognized more. Celiac is an autoimmune condition, meaning your body's immune system is sort of turning against itself. And the trigger for that is gluten, a protein in wheat and many other grains. If you have celiac disease, eating gluten causes your own antibodies to attack your bowel. People of Mediterranean descent and children seem to develop celiac disease more than other people. But what's been recognized recently is older people get it as well, with symptoms like constipation, diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal pain -- all of which look very much like IBS.

3. Are IBS and GERD preventable?

Prevention is really tough. They're both extremely common conditions, and gastroenterologists are often trying to treat them once they're already established.

Most people are not aware that smoking cigarettes doesn't just have a bad effect on your heart and lungs but also on acid secretion. It tends to cause a lot more acid to come into your stomach.

Also, stress clearly plays a major role in most, if not all, GI disorders. When you're stressed, hormonal changes cause your stomach to produce more acid. And more acid can mean more acid reflux. IBS can also be stress-related. So controlling and managing stress is helpful. And for acid reflux, keeping your weight under control is critical because gaining weight can cause GERD.

4. Are there alternative methods or promising new treatments?

Focusing on stress management, exercise, and weight loss and diet are not exactly alternative treatments, but I think they are certainly a key part of treating all these conditions.

Another area I think is moving from alternative to mainstream is the use of probiotics: healthy germs in your digestive system. One of the main places we have healthy bacteria is in our colon, so if something interferes with those, you end up with problems with digestion -- constipation, diarrhea, or abdominal pain. Now we know there are some things that probiotics may be extremely helpful for -- including treating IBS.

Acupuncture is an alternative treatment that's probably going to become more accepted for treating GI disorders, including conditions like IBS. It's a little complicated, because for whom it works -- and the mechanism for how it works -- is unclear. But I think acupuncture definitely works for some folks as more than just stress reduction, though it certainly helps with that, too.

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