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Meet the Evens Medical Director:…Dr. Heather Gerst

Image of Meet the Evens Medical Director:…Dr. Heather Gerst
Image of Meet the Evens Medical Director:…Dr. Heather Gerst

What did you want to be when you were a teenager? While most of us spend our high school years dreaming of athletic prowess or musical stardom, Dr. Heather Gerst was already shadowing a gastroenterologist, certain that her path in life was helping people who struggle with their digestive health.

Fast forward to today and Dr. Gerst is now a gastroenterologist herself, as well as being the Medical Director of Evens. Here’s everything you need to know about this GI health expert, in her own words.

Tell us a bit about your education and background.

I'm originally from a small town in northeast Ohio. I knew at a young age I wanted to be a doctor and began shadowing a local gastroenterologist in high school. After graduating from Kent State University, I got my medical degree from Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Erie, PA.

I went on to complete both my Internal Medicine Residency and Gastroenterology Fellowship at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, PA. Geisinger is a large tertiary care center that gave me the opportunity to see a broad range of rare and complex (as well as more common) gastrointestinal diseases.

How did you become interested in gastrointestinal health?

The digestive system has always fascinated me because of the intricacy of the process and the ample number of organs involved. The vast array of conditions I see involves aspects of not only gastroenterology but also oncology, immunology, infectious disease, surgery and the psychosocial gut-brain connection.

On a more emotional note, patients often suffer silently from digestive health symptoms because they’re reluctant to discuss these types of concerns with their doctor. I'm dedicated to breaking down those communication barriers and helping patients feel comfortable opening up about their digestive health.

What’s your favorite GI health fun fact?

Here are two fun facts about GI health that always surprise patients:

1. The average person passes gas approximately 15 times per day.

Passing gas is a normal byproduct of digestion. Your diet and overall gut health may increase or decrease gas production, but it’s normal (and necessary!) to expel the gas produced in your gut.

2. The large intestine (a.k.a. colon) is about five feet long.

If you stretched the colon out, it would be about as long as the width of a queen size bed. The colon is responsible for absorbing water and electrolytes from the food you eat and turning what's left into stool.

What’s the most common question your patients ask about digestive health? How do you answer it?

One of the most common questions I get from patients is “ What causes heartburn?”

The bottom of your esophagus has a muscle that creates a valve into the entrance of your stomach—this muscle is called the lower esophageal sphincter. It should only open when food is coming down the esophagus ready to go into the stomach. Once the food has passed into the stomach, it should close again.

In people who experience heartburn, the muscle relaxes at times when it shouldn't and the contents of your stomach, including acid, refluxes up into your esophagus giving the sensation of heartburn. Certain foods, how fast and when you eat and how much you eat can worsen acid reflux symptoms like heartburn.

What advice would you give someone who’s experiencing gastrointestinal issues?

Always listen to your gut! (Pun intended.) Changes in your digestive health—whether that’s heartburn, excess burping, swallowing issues, stool changes, or abdominal pain—should never be ignored.

Most GI conditions can be diagnosed relatively quickly and talking with an expert can get you on the path to symptom relief.

The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.