Published April 15, 2011
Picture this: A hot, heavy bowl of chili on a harsh winter’s day. Or this: A two-scoop cone of ice cream melting in the summer’s sun.
Do those images evoke desire or dread? Or both?
The truth is, it’s hard to enjoy a hearty dinner or a sweet treat when you’re worried about the discomfort or pain that may follow. There are a number of different problems that can affect the digestive system.
Three of the most common problems are heartburn/gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD; irritable bowel syndrome; and inflammatory bowel disease — all of which cause millions of Americans to suffer every day. However, by following a few simple rules, it is possible to reduce or even eliminate some of the symptoms that accompany one of life’s greatest joys – food.
Heartburn is a burning discomfort from the chest up to the throat that affects about one in every 10 Americans. One of the causes of heartburn is acid reflux, which is when stomach acid flows up through the lower esophageal sphincter and irritates the esophagus.
To prevent the burn, here are a few tips you can try:
1. Eat smaller portions of food
No matter what the food is, too much at once can put you in danger of a flare up. Also, try to eat food slower. Grabbing your meals on the go and wolfing them down leads to poor digestion and a greater risk of GERD symptoms.
2. Baking, broiling, grilling or roasting are all better alternatives than frying.
Also, make sure to cut off the fatty parts if you can. Foods that are high in fat sit in the stomach longer, which can cause discomfort.
3. In some cases, it’s best to just avoid certain foods altogether.
If you’re a frequent heartburn sufferer, spicy foods or foods that are highly acidic are probably not for you, especially on an empty stomach. Particularly acidic foods include tomatoes, citrus fruits and vinegar. If you’re really craving one of these foods, include a decent amount of other, less acidic foods like meat or vegetables as part of your meal.
4. Drinks can cause bloating and irritation too.
Stay away from caffeine and carbonation, as well as excess alcohol.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder characterized by abdominal pain, cramping and changes in bowel movements. Symptoms can range from mild to severe but are present for at least six months. They will often occur after meals, come and go, and be reduced or eliminated after a bowel movement. Sometimes, people with IBS will also suffer from diarrhea or constipation.
Normally, lifestyle changes are the most effective ways to cope with IBS. Here are a few of the more effective changes you can make:
1. As with heartburn, avoid large meals and eating too fast.
Foods that tend to aggravate IBS include wheat, rye, barley, beans, cabbage, some fruits, chocolate, alcohol, milk and caffeinated beverages.
2. Add more fiber to your diet.
Fiber helps regulate diarrhea and constipation. Soluble fiber, in particular, can be very effective. Foods high in soluble fiber include apples, beans and citrus fruits. Don’t try to cheat with fiber supplements – these can actually make symptoms worse.
3. Try to de-stress, in whatever way possible.
Anxiety has been linked with IBS. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep at night, and if possible, try to clear a little time in your day to relax and enjoy yourself. Some people claim that therapy can help with IBS symptoms.
Studies show that people who weigh less and are more physically fit report less abdominal pain than those who are heavier. Also, for a lot of people, exercise is a great way to reduce stress.
5. Are you lactose intolerant?
If milk and other dairy products bother you, you may have lactose intolerance. This means that your body is unable to digest the sugar in milk. If you suspect you are lactose intolerant, limit the amount of dairy products in your diet, and talk to your doctor.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a chronic condition that causes inflammation in the intestines. The intestinal walls swell and occasionally develop ulcers, which can lead to discomfort and serious digestive problems. There are different types of IBD, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Symptoms include abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea, bloody stools and weight loss.
IBD is more serious than IBS and should be treated by a doctor. There is a high risk of complications, such as obstruction, abscesses or fistulas, which all may require surgery. Also, people who have had IBD for at least eight years have a greater likelihood of developing colon cancer.
Beyond any medications or treatments your doctor prescribes, here are at-home tips to alleviate symptoms of IBD:
1. Be aware of trigger foods.
IBD symptoms can be triggered by a wide range of foods including: alcohol, coffee, soda, spicy foods, beans, fatty foods, high-fiber foods, nuts and seeds, raw fruits and vegetables, red meat, and dairy products. Low-residue diets (which eliminate nuts, seeds, raw fruits, and raw vegetables) can alleviate pain associated with Crohn’s disease.
2. Eat a well-balanced diet with smaller meals distributed more frequently across the day.
People with IBD can have trouble absorbing nutrients from foods. Couple that with a poor appetite due to abdominal pain, and you may be at risk of malnutrition. Smaller, healthier meals help the body absorb more nutrients. You doctor may also suggest vitamin and mineral supplements. Make sure to drink lots of water to avoid dehydration.
3. Engage in light exercise.
Activities like yoga, tai chi, or walking are recommended for people suffering from IBD. These activities can aid digestion and reduce stress, which eases abdominal pain. More strenuous exercises, however, can jar the body and make symptoms worse.
4. Look out for other symptoms.
Not all symptoms of IBD occur inside the digestive tract. Consult your doctor if you experience mouth sores, arthritis or vision problems.
Remember, these tips aren’t “one size fits all.” It’s a good idea to keep a log of what you eat and when it upsets you. Eventually, you should see a pattern that will indicate which foods and drinks you should avoid. Also, make note whenever you find something that alleviates your symptoms. This could be your first line of defense against abdominal pain.