Hany Al-khedr, MD, UC Health gastroenterologist and assistant professor of internal medicine for the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, says that more people are experiencing gastrointestinal problems than they have in the past, and there is a direct correlation between this increase and lifestyle changes. It has become even more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People are on the rush with a fast-paced lifestyle,” says Dr. Al-khedr, “They are not eating the right types of food and they are eating too late at night. The increase in issues is not due to the virus itself, but the stress of the pandemic has an effect on the digestive tract—it is very closely related.”
IBS, GERD and Colorectal Cancer on the Rise
Specifically, the most noticeable rise is in patients experiencing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Both gastrointestinal diseases include internal discomfort, with IBS in the abdomen, and with GERD in the chest or esophagus.
However, what is most concerning is the rapid increase in the incidence of colorectal cancer among young adults, which drove updates in the recommendations to start screening for colon cancer beginning at the age of 45 for average risk individuals.
“Almost half of the patients I see in the office with reflux disease stems from the wrong lifestyle habits. They fix it and move on,” Dr. Al-khedr says about the causes of IBS and GERD. His best advice is to go back to the basics of what you learned as a kid—eat a balanced diet, exercise and get a good night’s sleep.
When a patient comes to see Dr. Al-khedr in the Digestive Diseases Clinic on the UC Health West Chester Campus, 70% of the time he can figure out what is causing a patient’s symptoms just by talking to them. He asks about the patient’s diet, medications and sleep habits, and then makes suggestions that, if followed, will significantly improve their life.
Gastrointestinal Disease: A Culprit for More Than You Expect
Two areas over which patients have no control exist—age and genetics. For example, 33-year-old Khalid Badawi developed aches in his joints a few years ago, saying he had inflamed knees and ankles, and experienced constant back pain. Naturally, he saw an orthopaedics doctor to see if he was suffering from arthritis, as he has a family history of the condition. He was shocked when the orthopaedic doctor told him his joint swelling and pain was coming from gastrointestinal problems.
He met with Dr. Al-khedr who recommended that he have an upper endoscopy, an outpatient procedure used to examine the digestive tract, and a colonoscopy, allowing doctors to view the large intestine and rectum.