Digestive Terms Defined


A type of sugar found in milk and dairy products.


The movement and uptake of substances into cells or across tissues.


Rapid and brief in onset.

alarm symptoms

Symptoms that are a concern because they may indicate a serious underlying condition. These include weight loss, bleeding, trouble swallowing, new symptoms at an older age or anemia.

Alpha-1 antitrypsin

Alpha-1 antitrypsin is a special protein made in the body. An inherited disorder results in a deficiency of this protein which leads to damage of various organs - either the lungs (from deficiency) or the liver (from abnormal accumulation). Symptoms can begin at a very early age or in adulthood, and relate to the lungs (shortness of breath) or various stages of liver failure. Lung disease can be treated by intravenous replacement of alpha-1 antitrypsin. Treatment of liver disease involves a well-timed liver transplant.


An enzyme produced in the pancreas and salivary glands that speeds up the splitting of starch and glycogen to more absorbable components. High blood levels of amylase are common in conditions such as pancreatitis, but can occur for other reasons.


Low red blood cell count (low hemoglobin). The dilute blood is less able to carry oxygen. Symptoms may include tiredness, pale appearance, palpitations (irregular heart beat) and shortness of breath. Iron deficiency anemia is common. In adults it is often due to blood loss and sometimes to poor absorption or intake of iron. Blood loss in adults most commonly occurs from the gut.


Chemical substances that stop the growth of or kill bacteria, parasites and fungus. Antibiotics do not treat viral infections - antiviral drugs may treat some viruses.


Proteins made by specialized cells after stimulation by a foreign substance (antigen). They are part of the response by the body (immune response) to try to destroy the foreign substance.

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Single celled organisms.

barium enema

A radiologic procedure used to examine the lower digestive tract. A short tube is placed posteriorally into the rectum and a barium solution is injected, followed by air. X-rays are then taken that show the lining of the lower bowel and various diseases.

barium X-ray/barium swallow/upper gastrointestinal

An X-ray test used to show the structure of the upper digestive tract. The patient drinks a white liquid (barium), which coats the esophagus, stomach, and small intestines outlining the digestive tract. Women who are or may be pregnant should notify the doctor requesting the test and the radiology staff beforehand.

Barrett's esophagus

A disorder where the cells of the tissue lining the lower part of the esophagus change.

bile ducts

Small tubes that collect bile from the liver to a main common bile duct. Bile flows through this to mix with food in the duodenum.

biliary atresia

A rare, congenital (at birth) condition marked by the absence, underdevelopment or closure of the major bile ducts that drain bile from the liver. The baby looks normal at birth but develops jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes) after 2-3 weeks. Stools are light-colored and urine is dark, caused by build up of the pigment bilirubin in the blood. The abdomen may be swollen with a firm, enlarged liver. Weight loss and irritability develop as the jaundice increases. The blockage of bile flow from the liver can lead to cirrhosis of the liver (irreversible scarring) if not treated. Treatment involves surgically attaching the small intestine directly to the liver at the spot where bile is found or expected to drain. For the 20% of babies not helped by surgery, the only option is liver transplant.


Biologics are medications created through a biological process. Typically, they contain a portion of a human's biology. For an individual suffering from Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), a portion of that individual's immune system is overactive. The role of the immune system is to fight disease. This over-activity causes the disease-fighting cells to attack the lining of a person's gastrointestinal tract, rather than foreign cells (which is their intended purpose), leading to inflammation, bleeding, bloating, diarrhea, and other symptoms associated with IBD. The role of biologics in IBD is to turn off, or inhibit, the overactive, defective, portion of the immune system. By doing so, a person may become symptom free as one of the underlying causes of the disease and inflammation is controlled, while at the same time allowing the body's normal immune system to remain active to fight infections.


The removal of samples of tissue, cells or fluids from the living body. Biopsies can be taken using a biopsy instrument that is passed through the skin or through an endoscope into the organ in question, or is collect by open surgery. A trained specialist (pathologist) examines the tissue under a microscope to establish a precise diagnosis such as cancer.

Budd Chiari Syndrome

Patients with this disorder have developed blockage of the hepatic veins, which drain blood from the liver back to the heart. This subsequently causes damage to the liver.

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Campylobacter jejuni, the leading cause of bacterial food poisoning, is most often spread by contact with raw or undercooked poultry. Symptoms tend to start 2-5 days after exposure and typically last a week. They include diarrhea (often bloody), fever, abdominal pain, cramping, nausea and vomiting

carcinoid syndrome

A syndrome caused by a carcinoid tumor. This tumor usually arises in the digestive tract, anywhere between the stomach and the rectum, though 90% arise in the appendix. The tumor may metastasize (spread) to the liver, and may produce and release large amounts of various hormones into the bloodstream. Symptoms may include flushing, rapid pulse, facial swelling, swelling around the eyes, low blood pressure, abdominal pain, weight loss and diarrhea.


A type of cancer originating from cells lining an organ or in a glandular organ.

Caroli's disease

Congenital (at birth) cystic enlargement of the bile ducts within the liver. In later life these can give rise to problems with gallstones, common infection and possibly liver damage.

choledochal cyst

Congenital abnormality of the common bile duct. In later life these can give rise to problems with gallstones, common infection and possibly cancer in the bile duct.


Disruption of normal bile flow from the liver to the duodenum. This may occur due to a blockage of the bile ducts or poor excretion of bile by liver cells, resulting in an increase of bilirubin in the blood (jaundice).


Persisting over a long period of time. Relating to disease, one that is slow in progressing and long lasting.


An abnormal liver condition where the liver is irreversibly scarred. There are many causes of cirrhosis, such as longstanding alcohol abuse and viral hepatitis B and C. Cirrhosis is confirmed by liver biopsy.


Also known as the large bowel or large intestine. It connects above to the small intestine and food passes through it to form stool. The lower end, known as the rectum, is continuous with the anus.


An examination of the large intestine (colon or large bowel) that is performed by a trained doctor.


Used in some types of liver disease and for prevention of rejection of transplanted organs.

CT scan

Stands for computerized or computed tomography scan. A computer takes data from many X-ray images and turns them into more detailed pictures. The CT scan can reveal soft-tissue and other structures that cannot be seen with normal X-rays. Using the same dosage of radiation as an ordinary X-ray machine, an entire slice of the body can be made visible while the patient lies on a table that moves through a donut-shaped X-ray machine.

cystic fibrosis (CF)

An inherited disorder of infants, children and young adults, in which certain glands do not work properly. Abnormal mucus production causes mucus build-up in the lungs, which interferes with breathing. Mucus build up can also impair the pancreas and the intestine. The effect on organs and glands can vary greatly, so outcome may be different between patients. With diligent medical care, patients with CF are surviving beyond middle age. Treatment of CF includes physical therapy to loosen the mucus in the lungs, pancreatic enzymes, and antibiotics to fight infections of the lungs.

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The breathing muscle that separates the chest and abdominal cavities.


The uppermost part of the small intestine into which the stomach empties. The duodenum is a common site for ulcer formation.


Dyspepsia refers to nonspecific upper abdominal symptoms that many people call indigestion. These may include burning, discomfort, bloating, a feeling of unusual fullness with very little intake of food (early satiety) or following meals (postprandial fullness), nausea and heartburn.

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E. coli

Short for Escherichia coli, a bacterium that normally lives in the human large intestine. Most strains of E. coli are quite harmless, though some strains such as E. coli 0157:H7 can cause serious disease and death. The hemorrhagic diarrhea (bloody colitis) caused by E. coli 0157:H7 is severe and lasts for 6-8 days. Usually, infection comes from eating raw or undercooked ground beef (hamburger) or from drinking raw milk or contaminated water.


A broad term used to describe examination of the inside of a hollow organ using a lighted, flexible instrument called an endoscope. Types of endoscopy include gastroscopy, sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy.


Proteins that speed up chemical reactions.


Affecting or tending to affect more than the usual number of people within a population, community, or region at the same time. The term is often used in relation to infectious diseases.


Relating to the upper central region of the belly (abdomen).


Endoscopic Retrograde CholangioPancreatography or ERCP is a procedure used to look for diseases of the liver, bile ducts, pancreas or abdomen. A flexible tube (endoscope) is passed into the throat, through the stomach, and into the small intestine. The tube is passed into the bile ducts or the pancreatic duct. A dye is then injected and X-rays are taken of the bile ducts and/or pancreatic duct. ERCP is uncomfortable but not usually painful and complications are not frequent. It is performed under intravenous sedation.


Shallow destruction of the surface of a tissue.


Inflammation of the esophagus.


A soft muscular tube of the digestive tract that carries food from the mouth to the stomach for digestion.

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fecal occult blood test (FOBT)

Consists of the examination of stool samples from three consecutive bowel movements for traces of blood that are not visible to the naked eye.


Occurring suddenly and with great intensity or severity. Fulminant hepatitis is a severe and rapidly progressing form of hepatitis accompanied by the death of liver cells and liver failure. Fulminant hepatitis may be a complication of hepatitis A, B, D or E.

functional dyspepsia

Dyspepsia for which no cause can be found. The symptoms are presumed to be related to abnormal function rather than structural problems.

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Stones the size of pebbles (usually <1cm, rarely >3cm) within the gallbladder (the sac that stores bile, a product of the liver that helps digest fat). Sometimes these may float into the ducts that lead from the liver to the intestine. The stones are made of cholesterol and bile salts. Gallstones are a cause of abdominal pain, and often trigger inflammation and infection of the gallbladder and the pancreas. Gallstone disease is common, increasing with age, obesity, female sex (and fertility) and runs in some families.


Gastroenterologists are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases affecting the entire digestive system. This critical system includes the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, liver, pancreas and gall bladder.


Defined as the diagnosis and treatment of diseases affecting the entire digestive system including the esophagus, the stomach, the small and large intestines, the liver, the pancreas, and the gall bladder.

gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)

A disorder where stomach contents repeatedly splash back up into the lower esophagus.

gastrointestinal (GI) tract

The entire digestive system which begin at the mouth, continues into the esophagus (swallowing tube), stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum and ends at the anus.

gastroscopy/upper endoscopy

Use of a lighted flexible tube to examine the esophagus, stomach and duodenum.


Having to do with genes. Genes are structures found in every cell of the body that contain information that directs the activities of cells, thus controlling the way a person develops.


A single-celled parasite that inhabits the intestines of various mammals causing diarrhea. It is common in natural bodies of water such as lakes, streams or untreated drinking wells.

glycogen storage disease

A group of uncommon inherited metabolic disorders where there are abnormal deposits of glycogen in tissue. Glycogen is the main storage form for carbohydrate, and is mostly found in liver but to a lesser extent in muscle. In some patients, prominent liver involvement is found, while in others heart problems are noted.

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H. pylori/Helicobacter pylori

Helicobacter pylori is a bacterium (single-celled organism) that lives deep in the mucous layer lining of the stomach of some people. Infection with H. pylori leads to inflammation of the lining of the stomach (gastritis) and in some infected people, upper intestinal (duodenal) or stomach (gastric) ulcers. The infection may also play a role in the development of stomach tumours. It is more common in older people and is much less frequent in those born more recently. It persists unless it is treated with medications.


A feeling of burning rising up behind the breastbone (sternum) towards the neck. It is usually caused by gastroesophageal reflux, the splashing of acidic stomach contents back up into the lower esophagus.


very common inherited disorder in which the body absorbs too much iron from the duodenum. The excess iron gives the skin a bronze color and damages the liver and other organs. Diabetes may also develop because of damage to the pancreas. Treatment usually involves periodic removal of blood to remove excess iron and avoiding iron in the diet.


Inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis is usually caused by infection with a virus, or sometimes by toxic agents.


The major cell type in the liver.

hiatus hernia

Part of the stomach extending above the diaphragm into the chest cavity.

histamine H2-receptor antagonist (H2RA's)

Drugs that decrease acid production in the stomach.


A chemical signal in the body.

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immune system

The body's defense system, made up of many organs and cells, such as lymph nodes and white blood cells. These defend the body against foreign substances such as infection or transplanted organs.


The growth of a harmful organism within the body. It may be bacterial, viral, fungal or parasitic. Bad infections may cause fever and high white cell count. Not all infections cause symptoms. Some bacteria on the skin and in the gut are normal and do not cause disease.


Relating to the ability to pass an infection from one person to another.


Irritation of any body part such that it may cause swelling, redness and tenderness.


A hormone made by the pancreas that controls blood sugar (glucose).


The long, tube-like organ in the abdomen that links the stomach to the rectum and absorbs food nutrients. It consists of the small and large intestines (also known as the small and large bowel).


Within a vein. Intravenous can also refer to the actual solution that is administered intravenously, or to the device used to administer an intravenous solution.

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Yellowing of skin and the whites of the eyes caused by abnormally high blood levels of bilirubin. Bilirubin is a pigment produced when the liver eliminates waste from red blood cells.

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The enzyme that breaks down the milk sugar (lactose).


A type of sugar found in milk and dairy products.


An enzyme that speeds up the splitting of fats into more absorbable components. Elevated lipase levels point more specifically to a diagnosis of pancreatitis than do amylase levels.


An organ in the right upper abdomen that plays a major role in metabolism, digestion, detoxification and elimination of substances from the body.

lower esophageal sphinchter (LES)

A ring-like band of muscular fibres located at the junction of the esophagus and the stomach.

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non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

A large group of commonly prescribed drugs used to treat the inflammation of arthritis and other body tissues, such as in tendinitis and bursitis. Examples of frequently used NSAIDs include aspirin and ibuprofen (for example, Motrin® and Advil®). Some 10-50% of patients taking NSAIDs experience digestive tract side effects, such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating, heartburn, and upset stomach. About 15% of patients using NSAIDs on a long-term basis develop a stomach or upper intestinal (duodenal) ulcer. Even though many do not have symptoms and are unaware of their ulcers, they are at risk of developing serious ulcer complications such as bleeding or perforation of (a hole through) the stomach or intestine.

non-ulcer dyspepsia

Dyspepsia where no ulcer is found.

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Treatment to make life more comfortable.


An organ found below and behind the stomach that makes digestive juices and insulin.


Inflammation of the pancreas.


An organism that lives in or on, and takes its nourishment from, another organism. A parasite cannot live on its own for long. Sometimes their life cycle travels back and forth between humans and animals.

polycystic disease

An inherited disorder in which patients develop fluid-filled cysts in their kidneys and liver. These cysts can sometimes become so large that they damage the organs.

primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC)

An uncommon form of liver disease where small bile ducts within the liver become inflamed and destroyed. Symptoms occur late in the disease and the diagnosis is often made because of abnormal blood tests. Backup of bile and bile byproducts into the intestine causes intense skin itching and yellowing of the skin (jaundice). Lack of bile decreases absorption of calcium and vitamin D leading to osteoporosis. Cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) develops over time. PBC mostly affects women in middle age and is thought to be an autoimmune disease (disease where the body's self defense system does not recognize the body's tissues and attacks them). A drug, ursodeoxycholic acid, may delay transplant.

primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC)

Also called idiopathic sclerosing cholangitis. A chronic (long term) liver disorder where the ducts carrying bile from the liver to the intestine, and often the ducts carrying bile within the liver, become inflamed, thickened, scarred (sclerotic), and blocked. PSC can occur with other disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease or by itself. PSC often causes jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), generalized itching all over the body, upper abdominal pain, and infection. In time it progresses to cirrhosis of the liver (irreversible scarring) and liver failure, requiring liver transplantation. Diagnosis is based on physical exam, routine lab tests, and is confirmed by special radiological tests called cholangiography (ERCP, percutaneous cholangiogram, MRCP). Prognosis depends on the age of the person, degree of jaundice, the stage of PSC and the size of the spleen. Many patients die within 10 years of diagnosis unless a liver transplant is performed.


These are live microbes that can be formulated into many different types of products including foods, drugs and dietary supplements. The term "probiotic" in today's world refers to live microbes that have been shown in controlled human studies to impart a health benefit.


A drug that causes contractions of the muscles of the digestive tract, thereby speeding up movement of material through the gut.

proton pump inhibitors (PPI's)

Drugs that decrease acid production in the stomach.

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A backward flow of stomach contents usually referring to the splashing of stomach contents back up into the esophagus.


A backward flow of liquid.

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A type of bacteria that causes typhoid fever and other illnesses including food poisoning and gastroenteritis, and is transmitted through contaminated food products such as poultry.


A type of cancer originating from non-gland lining, such as arteries, muscle and bone tissue.


A feeling of fullness or easing of hunger associated with food intake.


A type of bacteria that can cause diarrhea. Shigella infection may be caused by drinking contaminated water.


A procedure where the rectum and sigmoid colon is examined using a lighted, flexible instrument called a sigmoidoscope. This instrument is much shorter than a colonoscope.


Narrowing of a hollow tube in the body.


A set of signs or series of events occurring together that often point to a single disease or condition as the cause.

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Total parental nutrition

TPN or PN for short. Intravenous feeding that provides patients with all essential nutrients when they are unable to adequately absorb nutrients from the gut.


The removal of tissue from one part of the body or from one person, and its implantation or insertion in another, usually by surgery.


Tyrosine is a type of amino acid (a building block of proteins). Tyrosinemia is a rare, inherited disorder of tyrosine metabolism where there are abnormally high levels of tyrosine in the blood and urine. This can affect the liver and kidneys.

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An open sore on a body surface. The sore is an area of tissue erosion (loss of surface tissue), for example, of the lining of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract or skin. Due to the erosion, an ulcer is concave like a crater and depressed below the level of the surrounding tissue.


An open sore on a part of the body.


Also called echography, sonography or ultrasonography. A probe on the skin uses sound waves to create a picture of the patient's internal organs on a TV screen. The sound waves show solid or fluid organs, such as liver, gallbladder, kidneys and babies, well. Because sound waves don't penetrate air well, hollow organs are not seen accurately.

Upper GI Series

An upper gastrointestinal (GI) series uses x-rays to diagnose problems in the upper portion (esophagus, stomach and duodenum) of the intestine. During the procedure, you will drink a thick, white, milkshake-like solution of barium contrast material and water. Barium coats the inside lining of the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum so they show up clearly on-x rays. Your doctor will watch the movement of the barium on a video screen. Several X-ray pictures are taken at different times and from different views. These pictures can show an ulcer, abnormal growth, or blockage and how the upper intestine is working.

urea breath test

The urea breath test is based on the ability of H. pylori to break down the chemical urea. Patients swallow a capsule or drink containing urea made with radiolabeled carbon. If H. pylori is present in the stomach, it breaks down the urea into nitrogen and carbon, releasing carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is absorbed across the lining of the stomach and into the blood. It then is excreted from the lungs in the breath. Samples of exhaled breath are collected, and the labeled carbon in the exhaled carbon dioxide is measured.

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vaccination / immunization

Purposeful exposure (oral or injection) to a part or a whole microorganism (bug) to stimulate the immune system against the bug, thus preventing disease. The healthy immune system recognizes invading bacteria and viruses and makes substances (antibodies) to destroy or disable them.


Preparations of killed or modified microorganisms that can stimulate an immune (disease fighting) response in the body to prevent future infection with similar microorganisms. These preparations are usually delivered by needle under the skin but may be given in other ways.

virtual colonoscopy

Virtual colonoscopy: a way of imaging the colon using air or water introduced into the rectum. Images are taken using a CT scanner. Preparation is still required. The doctor then looks at these images which are reconstructed to show the inside of the colon. This procedure is still in development. Early studies are promising; however the accuracy is not as good as with colonoscopy. If an abnormality is seen, colonoscopy is required to biopsy the abnormal area and attempt to remove any polyps. The main use in the future may be for screening the average risk population for bowel cancer.


A microorganism (bug) smaller than a bacterium, that cannot grow or reproduce apart from a living cell. A virus invades living cells and uses their chemical machinery to keep itself alive and to make copies of itself. Viruses cause many common human infections and diseases including the common cold and AIDS. Viruses do not respond to antibiotics but some can be treated with antiviral drugs.

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Wilson's disease

An inherited disorder in which copper builds up in the body and is deposited in the liver, brain, kidneys and eyes. Although copper build-up starts at birth, symptoms appear later in life, usually before age 40. Symptoms can be variable and may include those of liver disease, neurological or psychiatric problems. Common tests include measuring copper in urine or blood or checking for copper deposits in the eye. Drugs are given to remove the excess copper from the body.

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The surgical removal of an organ from one species to a different species. An example would be the use of a baboon heart in a human being.

Enhancing lifelong health

The Canadian Digestive Health Foundation believes our ability to help establish, enrich and protect a healthy gut microbiota is the key to lifelong health