Treating Tummy Troubles: Troubleshooting Common Stomach and Digestive Problems
While your average toddler has no problem using potty words with enthusiasm (particularly in public), his parents aren’t always willing to be quite as forthcoming. Stomach troubles can be embarrassing to discuss, but if you’re spending more quality time with your bathroom than your children are, it’s time to seek medical help.
“It’s important to see your doctor if you’ve had acute constipation, diarrhea, blood in the stool, nausea, vomiting or rapid weight loss for more than four days,” says Dr. Joe Berkson, a family medicine practitioner at Group Health Cooperative in Seattle. “And any non-acute chronic symptoms that have lasted for three months should be evaluated.”
Evaluation is key, says Berkson, because treatment varies depending on the digestive disorder and the individual. While most digestive disorders are not life-threatening, your doctor will need to rule out more serious diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
The National Institutes of Health says 60 million to 70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases. The most common conditions are gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which strikes 20 percent of the population; gastrointestinal infections, which hits 211 million in the U.S.; and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which affects one-third of the population — and affects women more frequently than men.
“IBS is essentially a diagnosis of exclusion,” says Berkson. “If you’ve had tests to rule out other causes, the diagnosis is usually IBS, which can include diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramping, constipation and nausea.”
While GERD and infections typically have straightforward treatment plans, the path to help those with IBS is much less clear cut.
“There are many potential causes for IBS,” says Dr. Kelly Baker, a naturopathic doctor and licensed acupuncturist at the IBS Treatment Center in Seattle. “It’s important to address underlying inflammation, rather than just treating the symptoms with medications.”
Baker lists food allergies, chronic use of antibiotics, and ecology issues such as low amounts of good bacteria, parasites and overgrowth of yeast as common triggers for the disorder. Stress can also play a significant role in raising inflammation throughout the body.
To identify food allergies, physicians look for an “IgE marker” through prick tests (the allergist drops potential allergens on a patient’s skin, and then pricks the spots and watches to see if there’s an allergic reaction). An allergic response to foods may include sneezing, itchy eyes, swollen lips or mouth and even anaphylaxis. Although effective for catching acute, possibly life-threatening allergies to foods such as nuts or shellfish, the IgE marker likely won’t identify food intolerances that may still be wreaking havoc on the health of your gut and on your immune system.
Naturopaths like Baker utilize blood tests that identify IgG and IgA markers, which are common factors in chronic digestive issues. But these tests can be expensive and are not always covered by insurance.
A less expensive but more time-consuming way to identify food allergies is with an elimination diet. The idea is to eliminate a food that you think is troubling you for four weeks, then see if your symptoms subside. “It’s important to be very strict during the elimination diet and read ingredients carefully,” says Baker. Gluten, for example can hide in unlikely places, such as in soy sauce.
Diet and food allergies can affect GERD, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and most other digestive disorders, including IBS, so pinpointing trigger foods can make a considerable difference in controlling symptoms.
Above all, don’t suffer in silence — get a diagnosis and incorporate diet and lifestyle changes that will help your condition.
Cedar Burnett is a Seattle writer and mother living with ulcerative colitis. More at cedarburnett.com.
The List: 8 Tips for Digestive Health
- Identify foods that affect your symptoms and reduce or eliminate them.
- Take a good-quality probiotic every day. Always take probiotics while taking antibiotics.
- Drink enough water to prevent dehydration — particularly if you have constipation or diarrhea.
- Include moderate exercise in your daily life. Moving your muscles is key to remaining regular.
- Try to reduce stress. When stress hits, go for a walk or meditate for a few minutes.
- See your doctor if you’ve had acute constipation, diarrhea, blood in the stool, nausea, vomiting or rapid weight loss for more than four days.
- Your doctor should evaluate any non-acute chronic symptoms that have lasted for three months.
- Remember: Don’t ignore chronic symptoms — seek medical help!
Sources: Dr. Joe Berkson and Dr. Kelly Baker