With colorectal cancer the third most common cancer in the UAE and diagnoses for conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) on the up, it seems that trusting your gut is more than just a turn of phrase these days.
But rather than trying to decipher your symptoms yourself, it’s important to listen to your body and consult a doctor.
We speak with an expert to find out what the most common gastrointestinal illnesses are here and what to do about them.
When it comes to strange symptoms, pain and ominous rumblings can be alarming, but we need to break off our problematic relationship with Dr Google and see a real physician, according to Dr Ahmed Abdel Samie-Huber, medical director and consultant gastroenterologist and hepatologist at Harley Street Medical Centre.
“If you have very common symptoms and you search online, you’re going to find a lot of things that might not necessarily be causing them,” he observes.
“You’re then going to focus on those conditions, and you’ll be even more confused.”
So what should you look for? “If you’re seeing a change in bowel habits or blood in stool, unintentional weight loss or increasing anaemia, you need to see a doctor for further investigation,”
Dr Ahmed urges. “It’s important to detect any condition at an early stage,” he adds.
“If you’re having minor abdominal pain, you might not always need a visit to the doctor, but if you’re seeing alarming symptoms or symptoms that get progressively worse, especially if you’re above the age of 40, it’s a good idea to get a check-up.”
And if you think it all seems like a lot to take on board, remember that good gut health might contribute to your wellbeing as a whole.
“From our experience, we see that a healthy gastrointestinal tract might contribute to a healthy system outside of that, such as your respiratory or cardiovascular system,” Dr Ahmed says.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) “One of the most common conditions we see in our outpatient clinic is IBS, which accounts for nearly 50 to 60 percent of the patients we’re seeing currently,” explains Dr Ahmed.
“Patients will come to us with chronic abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhoea – or sometimes a mixture of the two,” he continues.
“It’s a multifactorial condition. We know that environmental factors, such as sustained stress, might play a role, as well as lifestyle and genes.”
With IBS affecting an estimated ten to 15 percent of the world’s population, the condition has in recent years become better understood, but it’s still not always a seamless diagnosis.
“Understanding the condition is the most important step towards treating it,” Dr Ahmed notes.
“It’s a diagnosis by exclusion. We first need to rule out a major pathology, like bladder stones, gastric ulcers, Inflammatory Bowel Disease or colon cancer.
“Patients with IBS definitely have a problem, but the problem cannot be identified with routine methods,” he adds.
“Blood tests, endoscopy and colonoscopy will be normal, but the patient can be suffering from severe symptoms.”
“Another thing that seems to come up is colon cancer at a young age – this seems to be more prevalent here compared to Western countries,” says Dr Ahmed.
According to a study by the Department of Health in 2013, colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the emirate, with a reported higher incidence in men.
“In Europe and the US, asymptomatic patients of an average risk are advised to start screening at age 50,” he adds.
“Here, the health authority recommends to go for a screening colonoscopy for asymptomatic individuals from the age of 40.”
Symptoms of the disease include altered bowel habits, blood in stool and unintentional weight loss, as well as abdominal discomfort.
So, who is at risk?
“We know that being overweight might increase the risk of cancer, as well as certain eating habits like eating red meat, which can increase the risk of colorectal polyps,” explains Dr Ahmed.
“Smoking, like other cancers, also increases the risk. The main risk at a young age would be genetic.”
Fatty liver disease If you think that gastro problems only revolve around the stomach, then think again.
With rising instances of diabetes and obesity, there’s more than just the gastrointestinal system that’s at risk.
“Here, we have a good number of patients with diabetes and obesity, and that might interfere with gastrointestinal health, particularly in the liver,” notes Dr Ahmed.
“Many patients with obesity and diabetes might have what we call fatty liver disease where there are fat deposits in the liver, as well as elevated liver enzymes and changes in liver function.”
Characterised by an enlarged liver, fatigue and pain in the upper abdomen, fatty liver disease isn’t always easy to diagnose as it may not cause marked symptoms.
“The liver is an organ in the abdomen,” explains Dr Ahmed.
“It’s responsible for lots of processes inside the body, such as detoxification and metabolism. “Conditions that affect the liver and gall bladder might then have an effect on the gastrointestinal tract.”
With year-round high temperatures, Dr Ahmed says that another common gut illness in the UAE revolves around infections, such as food poisoning.
“We see many patients with gastrointestinal infections, which can occur a lot in hot places,” he says.
“In the vast majority, this is a viral infection that resolves itself within 48 to 72 hours without the need for a specific medication.
“We also see lots of patients with helicobacter pylori infections,” he continues. “This is a predisposing factor for peptic and duodenal ulcers. The prevalence is not extraordinarily
Whether it’s the dreaded traveller’s tummy or some kind of nasty bug, as with all illnesses, if you’re unsure, a quick trip to the doctor will always be able to set your mind at ease and you can then treat symptoms as necessary.
When faced with health scares and rising cancer rates, here are Dr Ahmed’s top tips for keeping your gut in good condition.
Eat well: “A balanced diet, more fruits and vegetables and eating less red meat will help,” Dr Ahmed notes. “Good eating habits are also key, such as not eating large meals and lying down, or eating large meals late at night.”
Get moving: As with many aspects of health, keeping your cardiovascular system working will keep your gut healthy: “It’s about [getting] more exercise and maintaining an optimal body mass index,” says Dr Ahmed.
Reduce stress: With some conditions like IBS, environmental stress can play a big role, so try to keep stress levels down – maybe try some meditation or yoga.
Know your body: Keep an eye out for any changes in bowel or gut habit, Dr Ahmed says. Bloating, pain, constipation and diarrhoea can all be a sign that something may not be right, as well as unintentional weight loss or blood in the stool.
For more information on Harley Street Medical Centre, contact: 02 613 3999, hsmc.ae
WORDS Camille Hogg