The NCI identifies the most common gastrointestinal problems examined by gastrointestinal specialists or gastroenterologists as constipation, impaction, bowel obstruction, diarrhea, radiation enteritis, gastrointestinal perforation, anthrax, gastroenteritis/colitis, laxative overdose, angiodysplasia of the colon and gastrointestinal bleeding.
Constipation is the slow, uncomfortable and possibly painful movement of dry, hard stool through the large intestine. This condition worsens as more fluid is absorbed and the waste becomes drier and harder.
If waste matter is not removed from the intestine at least once a day to three per day and at least three per week, physicians may diagnose a senior patient with constipation.
A physician assesses for constipation by reviewing the history of a patient’s bowel habits, including distention, gas passage, cramping and rectal fullness, a change in diet and drug use and by conducting occult blood tests and regular physical exams.
A lack of physical activity, a form of disability or social barriers such as the lack of bathroom accessibility, can cause constipation. So, too, can depression and anxiety brought on by cancer treatment or pain, insufficient water or fluid intake and the ingredients of certain pain relievers, though these last two factors can be managed.
To manage constipation, doctors may suggest that patients increase their intake of fiber through fruits, vegetables, whole-grain cereals, breads and bran and water or other fluids.
In fact, research was conducted involving senior patients, including cancer patients, to compare the medical care effectiveness, cost and management of a natural laxative mix of raisins, currants, prunes, figs, dates and prune versus the use of stool softeners, lactulose and other laxatives. The results found the natural laxative mix to be more medically and cost efficient.
By contrast, while constipation is uncomfortable and painful, fecal impaction is dangerous. Impaction is the collection of dry, hard waste matter in the rectum or colon.
Most senior patients with impaction may exhibit circulatory, cardiovascular or respiratory problems more than gastrointestinal issues but the main symptoms are back pain and bladder, urethra and urinary problems, especially frequent urination.
Physicians assess for impaction by asking the patient questions about constipation, using instruments to listen for bowel sounds, examining the abdomen to determine the level of gastrointestinal activity and conducting a rectal exam for the presence of stool in the rectum or colon and an abdominal X-ray for such features as gas passage.
Stool movement around impaction may produce diarrhea and coughing. It may also lead to stool leakage, which comes with nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and dehydration.
Such a patient may be found in a confused or disoriented state and suffering from fever and high or low blood pressure. If not detected and addressed immediately, impaction may result in death.
The main causes of impaction are opioid medication, a lack of physical exercise or activity, changes in diet, psychiatric illness or abuse of laxatives. In fact, laxative abuse aimed at decreasing constipation is considered the major cause of impaction. Overuse of laxatives makes the colon insensitive to natural reflexes caused by distention.
Doctors treat impaction by watering and softening the stool for removal. They use enemas that incorporate oil retention, tap water or hypertonic phosphates to moisten the bowel and remove the stool. Often, docusate, mineral or olive oil and glycerin suppositories are used.
Occasionally, after an enema is used, a patient may be disimpacted digitally to address the remaining waste matter.
Large or small bowel obstruction is a partial or complete blockage of the bowel by a method other than constipation and impaction. Eighty percent of bowel obstructions take place in the small intestine while the other 20 percent happens in the colon. A physician may make a determination of obstruction if there is no gas.
An obstruction is classified by three ways: the type of obstruction, the mechanism of obstruction (whether mechanical or nonmechanical) and the part of the bowel in question. Often, it is termed “twisted bowel.”
Total or partial obstruction is typically caused by structural disorders like bowel lesions connected to cancer, post-surgical abdominal problems or hernias. Additionally, a patient with a colostomy, a type of surgery that re-directs a part of the colon to avoid a damaged part of the gastrointestinal tract, are at risk of developing constipation.
There are four types of obstruction: simple in which one site is blocked; closed-loop with blockage in two places; strangulated involving decreasing blood flow, and; incarcerated when the strangulated state is not resolved.
To determine bowel obstruction, physicians may examine a patient for abdominal pain, vomiting and gas or stool passage and may conduct a white blood cell count, electrolyte panel, urinalysis, sepsis, flat or upright abdominal films, enemas and gastrointestinal series.
To treat and manage obstruction, doctors may perform volume resuscitation, elecrolyte imbalances, transfusion support, distended bowel decompression efforts via intestinal tubes, a change in diet and the use of stents.
As diagnosed, diarrhea is an unhealthy increase in stool liquid and frequency of passage of more than three instances of waste matter from the intestine in a 24-hour period. It can span more than four days but less than two weeks. While considered less prevalent than constipation, diarrhea is considered chronic if it lasts more than two months.
Increasingly, the process of cancer care, especially radiation therapy and the stress and anxiety caused, antibiotic therapy, bone marrow transplants or gastrointestinal surgery, are among the main causes of diarrhea and the results can be physically and emotionally damaging.
Diarrhea can change a senior patient’s diet, prompt dehydration, cause electrolyte imbalance, stop function, induce fatigue, affect skin health, restrict physical activity and can be dangerous.
To manage diarrhea, physicians may treat such conditions as impaction; change the laxative therapy in use and the diet of the patient in question for low-fiber, mineral-rich foods that don’t upset the digestive tract; introduce opioid and aspirin use, and; increase liquid intake of water, broths, weak teas, caffeine-free soft drinks, clear juices and gelatin.
Radiation enteritis is a disorder of the large and small bowels that occurs during and after a session of radiation therapy to the abdomen, pelvis or rectum. The large and small bowels are vulnerable to radiation meant to treat cancer. While radiation dosages can effectively control cancerous tumors, normal tissues can be damaged in the process.
To assess radiation enteritis, physicians may seek out acute signs of injury to the digestive tract after the first session of radiation therapy and up to eight weeks later though some symptoms may present after many months or years. The signs include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping and pain, weight loss, and watery diarrhea.
The incidence of radiation enteritis may involve the following factors: dosage of therapy; tumor size and extent; the volume of the bowel treated; other symptoms and illnesses experienced by the patient; the malfunction of the digestive tract in terms of the absorption of fat, lactose, bile salts and vitamin B12; the level of pain felt by the patient; the nature of accompanying discharge, and; the presence of blood in the tract.
To manage enteritis, doctors will consider the level of diarrhea, dehydration, lack of absorption of nutrients and pain and discomfort experienced; attempt to address these with medicine such as brand-name Kaopectate and Immodium liquid formulas, opioids, steroid foams and replacement enzymes; changes in diet, including the use of lactase, fish, poultry and meat, fruit, white bread and toast, pasta, potatoes, vegetables and dairy products; bowel surgery, and; physical rest.
Gastrointestinal perforations are holes in the wall of the stomach, small intestine, large bowel or gall bladder and a matter of medical emergency. Perforations are generally caused by illnesses such as appendicitis, diverticulitis, ulcer disease, gallstones or gallbladder infection and inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. They lead to leakage of intestinal substances into the abdomen, leading to a form of inflammation called peritonitis.
Anthrax, an infectious disease caused by the bacteria called bacillus anthracis, involves the skin, the gastrointestinal tract or the lungs. This illness, which affects hoofed animals such as sheep and goats, inflicts humans who come into contact with them.
Typically, farm workers, veterinarians and tannery and wool workers tend to be patients. They may contract cutaneous anthrax through a cut or scrape on the skin, inhalation anthrax through the lungs with anthrax spores and gastrointestinal anthrax through anthrax-tainted meat.
Gastroenteritis/colitis, an inflammation of the stomach or intestine due to infection by the virus cytomegalovirus (CMV), is caused by a herpes-type virus related to one that leads to the onset of chickenpox.
Throughout their lives, most people confront the virus by saliva, urine, respiratory droplets, sexual contact and blood transfusions. It creates mild or no symptoms in healthy individuals.
However, some individuals with weak immune systems can develop CMV infections, including patients receiving chemotherapy for cancer, treatment for AIDS and immune-suppressing drugs after an bone marrow or organ transplant.
Those with strong immune systems may acquire CMV infections from a physical injury, kidney failure or infection.
Laxative overdose can take place when an individual accidentally or intentionally ingests more than the normal or recommended amount of drugs. Some overdoses in children are by accident but adults primarily abuse laxatives to lose weight.
The toxic ingredients in the most abused laxatives are bisacodyl (Dulcolax), carboxymethylcellulose, castor oil, docusate, glycerin, lactulose, magnesium citrate, magnesium hydroxide, magnesium oxide, magnesium sulfate, malt soup extract, methylcellulose, milk of magnesia, mineral oil, potassium bitartrate and sodium bicarbonate, psyllium, psyllium hydrophilic mucilloid, senna and sodium phosphate.
Angiodysplasia of the Colon
Angiodysplasia of the colon, which involves enlarged and fragile blood vessels in the colon that result in bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract, primarily affects senior patients. It relates to the aging and degeneration of the blood vessels.
Research is still determining the cause of this illness. The greatest cause are normal spasms of the colon that enlarge blood vessels in the gastrointestinal tract.
With severe swelling, a small route develops between a very small artery and vein, which is called an arteriovenous fistula. It is in that portion of the colon wall that a senior patient may experience bleeding.
Angiodysplasia of the colon is not connected to the diseases of the blood vessels, cancer and diverticulosis, another condition of intestinal bleeding in senior patients.
Gastrointestinal bleeding refers to bleeding that starts in the upper part of the small intestine to include the small and large bowels in the digestive tract, which starts from the mouth and ends with the anus.
The extent of bleeding ranges from miniscule that can only be detected by laboratory testing to massive and it may indicate serious illness. Long-term microscopic bleeding can mean anemia. Severe massive bleeding can result in hypovolemia, shock and death.
The bleeding can take place at any age from the time of birth onward. The level and location of bleeding dictates what type of tests will be conducted to find the cause. Once bleeding is detected, a number of treatments are available to stem it.
Causes of gastrointestinal bleeding include anal fissure, aorto-enteric fistula, arterio-venous growth, diverticulum, cancer of the small intestine, colon cancer, cow’s milk allergy, Crohn’s disease, duodenal ulcer, dysentery, esophagitis, gastric ulcer, hemorrhoids, intestinal polyps, intestinal obstruction, intestinal vasculitis, nosebleed, portal hypertensive gastropathy, radiation injury to the bowel, stomach cancer and ulcerative colitis.
With age, the immune system gradually ceases to function, leading to a decrease in the level of disease-fighting cells and an increased risk of infections. Exacerbating this is the frequency of surgeries by senior patients, which further compromises the body’s ability to ward off infections.
This makes it easier for foodborne illnesses to take hold, James L. Smith, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded in his research.
Smith arrived at this finding after reviewing data from foodborne illnesses at nursing homes, conducting regular physical exams, studying the immune and digestive systems of seniors and looking at the importance of long-term exercise in strengthening the immune system.
Additionally, with aging, inflammation of the lining of the stomach and a drop in stomach acid takes place. The stomach is instrumental in restricting the amount of bacteria in the small intestine so that a decrease in stomach acids raises the danger of infection if it is digested with food or liquid.
Worsening this condition is the deceleration of the digestive process, enabling the spread of bacteria, fungi and viruses in the gut and the development of poison.
Malnutrition is connected to foodborne illness in that it leads to more infections and takes place with seniors in part because of a decrease in the pleasure of eating, the use of various medicines, digestive illnesses, nondigestive diseases, physical disabilities or depression, all of which may lead to a loss of appetite. Sound nutrition is key to keeping a healthy immune system.
Symptoms of foodborne illness include diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever, blood or pus in the stools, headache, vomiting and severe exhaustion. This depends on the type of bacteria involved and the sum of toxins digested.
The symptoms can present themselves a half-hour after eating or may not arrive for days or weeks. They may start in a day or two but can stay as long as a week to 10 days. In healthy individuals, foodborne illnesses don’t last long and are not dangerous but they can be both lengthy and lethal in seniors.
In the case of foodborne illness, senior patients or their families must act immediately, Smith says in his research. Seniors must store and mark a portion of the suspect food, recording the food type, the date, the time consumed and the moment the symptoms began.
They must obtain treatment, call their local jurisdictional health department if they digested the food at a large event, from a restaurant or food facility and contact the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) consumer food information line if they have questions, he says.
Senior patients must also avoid food poisoning in the future by removing uncooked foods from their diets. Their physicians advise them to steer clear of raw fin fish and shellfish, including oysters, clams, mussels and scallops; unpasteurized or untreated milk or cheese or fruit or vegetable juices; soft cheese such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined and Mexican-style cheese; raw or uncooked egg or egg products such as salad dressings, cookie or cake batter, sauces and egg nog; raw meat or poultry, and; or raw alfalfa sprouts.
Most fruit or vegetable juices in the nation — amounting to 98 percent — have been treated to eliminate bacteria. The FDA requires companies to place warnings on their products.
Natural Foods, Herbal Remedies for Gastrointestinal Health
Aside from the aforementioned treatments and modes of management for gastrointestinal illnesses as constipation, impaction, bowel obstruction, diarrhea, radiation enteritis, gastrointestinal perforation, anthrax, gastroenteritis/colitis, laxative overdose, angiodysplasia of the colon and gastrointestinal bleeding, a variety of natural foods and herbal remedies exist to treat these conditions.
To respond to these diseases, physicians also recommend the use of chamomile tea, green tea, high-fiber flaxseeds, oats, omega-3s, flax oil, ginger, milk thistle, psyllium, saw palmetto, high-fiber hot peppers, onions, sweet red bell peppers, rice, barley, cabbage, beets, carrots, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and water.
Chamomile tea has and still remains a remedy for relaxation, to cure insomnia and to soothe an aching stomach. Being researched for its antioxidant, antispasmodic and antiseptic properties, it has been used to treat skin irritation, intestinal cramps and wracked nerves. In tea form, chamomile is drunk three to four times daily to eliminate gastrointestinal upset.
Flaxseeds contain protein, dietary fiber and omega-3 fats and can be found in breads and cereals. Flaxseed oil is a rich source of lignans, a plant compound with hormone-like effects on the body, and omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid, a fatty acid that makes up 55 percent of its oil and is anti-inflammatory and boosts the immune system.
Omega-3s and lignans cut back on the risk of certain types of cancer such as breast, colon, prostate and uterus. Physicians recommend grinding the flaxseeds into a coffee grinder before placing them on bread, pancakes or muffin batters. The flax oil also are used as a supplement and can be placed in salads.
Ginger has long been used as a digestive aid as it enables the secretion of digestive juices in the stomach. Research also finds that ginger is effective in treating nausea, especially from motion or sea sickness and from surgery.
The most natural means of using ginger is to make infusions from grated or sliced ginger root though dosage isn’t calculated. For powdered root, the dosage of ginger is 150 milligrams to 1 gram in capsule several times a day.
It can also be obtained as candied or crystallized ginger at gourmet or Asian markets. A one-inch square is equal to one 500-mg capsule.
However, ginger is not recommended for individuals enduring chemotherapy if their blood cell count is low as it functions as a blood thinner and could place a senior patient at risk for internal bleeding.
Green tea is also useful as an herb to hydrate patients and contains antioxidants that defend against bacteria, which is important as dehydration can lead to constipation. Aside from teas, senior patients are also urged to drink plenty of fluids, particularly water.
Milk thistle, because of its active ingredient silymarin, can guard liver cells against poisons, including medications, viruses and radiation. In fact, it fights inflammation and disease caused by alcoholism, toxins and poisonous mushrooms and can help a liver reconstruct with no side effects.
Diabetics are asked to speak with their physicians about watching their blood sugar while taking milk thistle. A normal dosage amounts to 140 milligrams in a capsule two to three times per day.
Psyllium contains soluble fiber through the dried husks of its seeds. It lowers blood cholesterol and functions as a laxative on an over-the-counter basis. It is also present in some cereals. The FDA approved health claims on cereals containing psyllium.
The agency mandates that each product contain at least 1.7 grams of fiber per serving. Senior patients must drink plenty of water and other drinks when eating psyllium-rich cereals or it can lead to gastrointestinal blockage.
Saw palmetto serves as an inflammatory agent but it also offers relief to men suffering from benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH, or the slow but gradual growth of the prostate gland. Daily dosing amounts to 160 milligrams twice. The herb also works well with others such as nettle root and pumpkin seed extract without serious side effects.
Some processed medicines used by senior patients can be used with herbs. Some blood thinners and anti-clotting agents can work with Asian ginseng, dong quai, ginkgo, ginger, feverfew and garlic. However, heart drugs like digoxin produce negative interactions when mixed with Asian ginseng or St. John’s wort.
As a result, senior patients must follow instructions when dosing herbals. Researchers ask seniors over the age of 70 to take about 80 percent of the recommended adult dosage of any herbal preparation. Seniors who are frail or cannot take some drugs should begin with half the recommended dosage of medicines.
Some foods have been billed as colon cleaners when eaten raw. These include hot peppers, onions and sweet peppers. Oats join flaxseeds as being highest in soluble and insoluble fiber. Other foods that also known to cleanse the digestive tract include barley, beets, Brussels, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower and watermelon.
Altshuler, Larry, M.D., and Connors, Martha Schindler, “Seniors and Health,” Gastrointestinal Health Program, http://www.sentara.com/HospitalsFacilities/Hospitals/Bayside/Pages/bayside-programs-serivces.aspx
American Accreditation Healthcare Commission, http://www.urac.org.
American College of Gastroenterology, http://www.acg.gi.org.
American Gastroenterology Association, http://www.gastro.org.
Gastrointestinal Bleeding, http://www.healthcentral.com/ency/408/003133trt.html
“Gastrointestinal Complications: Supportive Care – Health Professional Information,” National Cancer Institute, http://cancer.gov
“Gastrointestinal Health in Seniors,” http://health.howstuffworks.com/herbal-remedies.htm
International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD), http://www.iffgd.org
“Keys To Gastrointestinal Health,” http://www.helium.com/knowledge/10322-keys-to-gastrointestinal-health
Liver Foundation, http://www.liverfoundation.org
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov