Stomach pain and other gastrointestinal issues may result from cardiovascular disease—problems in the digestive system are one of the symptoms of a heart condition. 

A heart attack results from cardiovascular disease; this is a commonly known fact. But how does heart disease affect the digestive system? This article explores how heart disease affects the digestive system, the types, causes, and treatments for heart disease.

How Does a Heart Attack Affect the Digestive System?

As the heart stops pumping blood effectively throughout the body, it slows down circulation due to blood clots in blood vessels. Due to a blood vessel disease, slower blood flow means that enough oxygen is not reaching cells in the body, and insufficient carbon dioxide leaves the body, resulting in acidic body chemistry.

A shift of the body chemistry from alkaline to acidic ultimately detriments the functionality of organs and organ systems, the digestive tract being one of them. This can cause problems like nausea, acute intestinal ischemia, or intestinal angina. These potential problems are how heart disease affects the digestive system.

But how does acidity affect the organs? The straightforward answer is: by causing mineral deficiencies in the organs. When there is acidity in the body, minerals like calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium are leached out from your organs to help neutralize the acidic conditions. These are essential minerals that help the organs function correctly, and long-term deficiencies of minerals lead to health conditions. 

In detail, the gastrointestinal effects of heart diseases are:

1) Intestinal Ischemia

Intestinal ischemia refers to a range of conditions that are caused by problems with the cardiovascular system. When blood flow is stopped by blocked blood vessels— clots usually form by atrial fibrillation—it damages your colon, small intestine, or both.

There are two general types of intestinal ischemia, namely, acute and chronic intestinal ischemia. 

Symptoms of acute intestinal ischemia include:

  • Sudden mild to severe abdominal pain,
  • Frequent, forceful bowel movements,
  • Blood in one’s stool,
  • Abdominal tenderness or distention,
  • A sudden need to have a bowel movement, 
  • Mental confusion (usually in older adults).

Whereas symptoms of chronic intestinal ischemia include:

  • Abdominal pain that worsens over weeks or months, 
  • Abdominal cramps or fullness lasting upto three hours after eating,
  • Recurring abdominal pain after meals,
  • Unexplained weight loss, 
  • Diarrhea, 
  • Nausea,
  • Bloating.

2) Intestinal Angina 

Also called abdominal angina (AA) and chronic mesenteric ischemia, intestinal angina is a type of intestinal ischemia. The disease refers to discomfort or pain in the gut due to lower blood circulation to the tissues and organs in the digestive system. Lower blood circulation to the digestive system usually results from a blood vessel disease that compromises blood flow in the intestinal and mesenteric vasculature. 

Many signs point to intestinal angina, varying from case to case. Since this abdominal disease is associated with digestion, symptoms show up after eating. The common signs include:

  • Diarrhea, 
  • Nausea or vomiting,
  • Sharp abdominal pain within an hour after a meal,
  • Dull cramps near the pit of the stomach,
  • Pain in the back, but this is rare. 

3) Ischemic Colitis

Ischemic colitis is the most common type of intestinal ischemia and is also known as colon ischemia. This condition can be caused by dangerous hypertension associated with heart failure, which directly answers the question: how does a heart attack affect the digestive system?

Threateningly low blood pressure can also be caused by major surgery, trauma, or shock and may lead to ischemic colitis. Another factor related to heart disease is a blood clot in an artery supplying the colon.

How the Heart Functions

Before fully understanding heart diseases, one has to comprehend how a healthy heart functions. 

how does heart disease affect the digestive system
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A human heart is divided into four chambers—the two chambers at the bottom are called left and right ventricles, while the top chambers are the right and left atria. Blood is oxygenated in the lungs and flows into the left atrium towards the left ventricle. The latter pumps blood back into the body.

After your blood has circulated through your body, it becomes deoxygenated. Deoxygenated blood returns to the heart through the right atria into the right ventricle. The right ventricle then sends blood back to your lungs to oxygenate the blood cells.

What is Cardiovascular Disease?

Although there is a range of causes of heart disease, the problem eventually arises with clogged or narrowed coronary arteries. When coronary arteries are blocked or narrowed, the heart cannot supply the body with adequate oxygen-rich blood. 

A prolonged supply of a lower amount of oxygenated blood leads to problems in the body and the heart. Impaired cardiac function due to blocked coronary arteries is one of the most common types of heart disease, called Coronary Artery Disease (CAD).

Generally, clogging or narrowing of coronary arteries results from fatty plaque buildup in the vessels. Plaque buildup is a major health risk since it limits blood circulation through the blood vessels, causing pain or increased pressure in the chest (i.e., angina).

ALSO READ: How to Reverse Congestive Heart Failure?

A cardiac arrest or heart attack is a result of blood clots forming through plaque buildup. When blood clots entirely block an artery, blood flow is cut off, causing a heart attack. Blood flow can be blocked off in arteries away from the heart as well, which detriments other organ systems.

Types of Heart Disease

Now that we understand healthy cardiac function and what cardiovascular diseases generally are, we can start exploring each main type of heart disease and the specific risk factors of heart health.

1) Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)

As discussed before, Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) is the most common type of heart disease. Coronary Artery Disease usually results from atherosclerosis, a blood vessel disease caused due to damage to endothelia.

The endothelium is a thin tissue covering coronary arteries to keep them smooth and in shape for optimum blood circulation to the heart and back. Atherosclerosis starts with damage to endothelial cells, which is common to:

  • People with high blood cholesterol, 
  • Adults with high blood pressure, 
  • People with inflammation, 
  • Adults with diabetes,
  • People who smoke.

Coronary heart disease, as mentioned earlier, also causes pain in your chest—called angina. In severe cases, coronary artery disease may also cause heart failure, so the condition should be taken seriously. Below are the additional risk factors for coronary artery disease:

  • Age,
  • Lack of physical activity,
  • High blood cholesterol levels,
  • Stress,
  • Diabetes or metabolic syndromes,
  • Having a family history of heart disease.

2) Arrhythmia

The type of heart disease is defined as an uneven heartbeat. If your heart pumps blood at a rhythm different from normal cardiac function, it is a heart disease risk. Although checking for a warning sign of arrhythmia is difficult since signs are usually subtle, they can range from palpitations to fainting.

ALSO READ: Signs of Heart Problems in Children

3) Heart Valve Disease

Heart muscle pumps blood through the valves in the heart. These valves are flaps that hold blood in the heart’s different chambers before the heart pumps it out. When there is a defect in any of these valves, it prevents the heart valves from opening or closing correctly. Below are the three main causes of damaged heart valves that result in heart valve disease:

  • Atresia: this is a defect that results in a lack of opening in the valve that prevents blood flow.
  • Backflow:  valves cause blood to flow in the opposite direction due to this defect.
  • Stenosis: either the valves are enlarged, stiff, or joined together, which means less blood flows through.

If you are suffering from heart valve disease, you may experience:

  • Heart murmurs, 
  • Shortness of breath, 
  • Increased tiredness, 
  • Swelling in your ankles, feet, legs, or belly.

4) Cardiomyopathy

Cardiomyopathy is a disease of one’s heart muscle, also called myocardium. Your heart becomes too weak to pump blood if the heart muscle is overstretched, thick, or stiff. The disease is caused generally by:

  • Genetic heart conditions,
  • Reactions to drugs or toxins (e.g., alcohol),
  • Infections from a virus.

The most common type of cardiomyopathy happens in the left ventricle and is called dilated cardiomyopathy. This occurs when the myocardium of the left ventricle has gotten stretched.

5) Congenital Heart Disease

Congenital heart disease occurs before a baby is born; some sort of problem prevents an unborn baby’s heart from forming. In some cases, the signs of coronary heart disease are realized right after birth, but the symptoms might not show up until adulthood.

  • Septal Defects: One of the most common congenital heart diseases is septal defects. These defects refer to the holes in the wall between the atria and ventricles. Surgery is needed to patch septal defects.
  •  Pulmonary Stenosis: Pulmonary stenosis is another type of defect; a narrow valve forms, causing a decrease of flow to the lungs. Pulmonary stenosis also requires surgery.
  • A Defect in the Ductus Arteriosus: The ductus arteriosus is a small blood vessel that should naturally get blocked off at birth. If this vessel doesn’t close up, blood starts to leak into the pulmonary artery. This puts extra strain on your heart. This issue can be cured by treatment or with medication. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What else increases my chances of heart disease or stroke if I have diabetes?

People with diabetes have an increased chance of developing heart disease or having a stroke. Other factors add to these chances.

How to prevent coronary heart disease?

To reduce coronary heart disease risk, individuals should maintain a healthy daily routine by stopping smoking, eating healthy foods, and remaining physically active. Contact health professionals for more details on how to minimize your risk for heart disease.

When to see a doctor?

Immediately seek medical care professionals if you experience severe chest pain or pressure (angina). If chest pain is combined with factors such as pain in the arm or jaw or difficulty breathing, it could be a warning sign for cardiac arrest.

Bottom Line

Readers had asked the question: how does a heart attack affect the digestive system? We hope that this article gave you a fair idea of how heart disease affects the digestive system and what the common cardiovascular diseases and gastrointestinal effects are.