MadSci Network: Medicine

Re: What happens when an organ in our digestive system fails?

Date: Wed Jun 11 14:04:18 2003
Posted By: Elizabeth Kunkel, Faculty, Food Science and Human Nutrition, Clemson University
Area of science: Medicine
ID: 1045974615.Me

That is a very good question and congratulations on being on the high honor 
roll!  Organs involved in digestion do fail at times and the effects depend 
on which organ it is.  For example, if the pancreas fails, many of the 
enzymes involved in digestion either are not made or cannot access the 
small intestine.  In that case, the person is unable to digest 
typical foods.  The treatment for them is to either eat foods that are 
already mostly digested (there are a variety of formulas available for 
them) or to take specially made pills that contain the enzymes they lack.  
While the digestive organs themselves (the esophagus, stomach and 
intestines) do not "fail" in a classic sense of the term, they do become 
diseased or blocked.  If they are diseased, digestion and/or absorption of 
foods is impaired at least temporarily.  For example, it is fairly popular 
right now to use gastric bypass surgery to treat severe obesity.  This type 
of surgery removes most of the stomach; people who have had the surgery 
cannot eat more than about 1 cup of food or beverage at a time and so lose 
weight.  Some people develop diseases of their small intestine or large 
intestine.  Sometimes, sections have to be surgically removed.  The effect 
depends on what happens to food in that section of the intestine.  For 
example, many nutrients are digested and absorbed in the ileum section of 
the small intestine.  If all or part of that section is removed, 
significant impairment of digestion and absorption occurs.  These people 
are then treated with formulas that are mostly digested (much like the 
people with pancreatic problems mentioned above) or may be fed through a 
vein.  However, comparatively little digestion occurs in most of the large 
intestine, so removal of parts of it may have very little impact.

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