What is Gastroenterology?
Gastroenterology looks at issues related to the digestive system. It includes not only the whole length of the gut, from swallowing to excretion, but also two important organs, the pancreas and liver, and the ducts through which their secretions enter the intestine.
When seen in this way the digestive system ranks in importance with breathing, circulation of blood and the function of the kidneys. Such a complex system is liable to many disorders. Digestive disorders affect us all, for most of us as transient unpleasant episodes, but for many as a recurrent cause of discomfort, pain or unease.
Some are disabling and a cause of chronic ill health; others, especially cancers, are a common cause of death. Our large and small intestines (bowels) make up the major part of the digestive system. A flexible tube which is five metres long, the small intestine absorbs nutrients through its wall into the blood stream, while the wider large intestine extracts water, nutrients and minerals before expelling waste products via the anus. Major conditions associated with the bowels include Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s disease, plus the two major types of Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
The liver is the largest organ in the body and performs many vital functions. It acts as a filter and detoxification station for potentially harmful substances, a storehouse for foods, energy, minerals, and a chemical factory that modifies nutrients from the blood, manufactures body-building proteins and blood-clotting factors and removes waste products.
The liver is vulnerable to cell damage from within or outside from viruses, drugs, alcohol or poisons that pass through. Hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) and cirrhosis – when scarring follows chronic cell damage – are the most common forms of liver disease. An increase in alcohol consumption in the UK is leading to a large increase in liver disease and the cost to the NHS .
Quality of life may be seriously threatened when things go wrong with our insides. People of any age may be affected – from babies with colic or gastroenteritis to elderly people with constipation or incontinence. Cancers of the digestive tract account for more than a quarter of all cancer deaths in the UK . Cancers of the large intestine are exceeded in frequency only by breast and lung cancer. Fortunately, early cancers of the large bowel are often treatable.