How to Tackle Every Kind of Tummy Trouble
Experts suspect this is because some digestive issues are associated with hormonal fluctuations. Another theory: Women are more sensitive than men to foods. That may have been helpful for our ancestors in trying to determine what was safe to eat, but less so for those of us still dealing with last night's post-chili bellyache.
"The good news is that because stomach issues are so pervasive, there's a lot of information to work with," says Ron Palmon, MD, clinical instructor in medicine and gastroenterology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. "The biggest hurdle is sifting out the most effective solutions."
Here, we've rounded up the most common symptoms and paired them with well-researched advice from top experts. From what to eat to get rid of nausea (yes, you read that right!) to which alternative remedies actually work, we've got you—and your stomach—covered. Here, common complaints…and how to cope:
Prevent it:Get enough fiber and magnesium. Fiber, as you may know, adds bulk that makes waste easier to eliminate. "Magnesium is Mother Nature's muscle relaxant, so it helps keep everything moving, and it tends to attract water, which hydrates the stool," says Gerard E. Mullin, MD, associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of the forthcoming Integrative Gastroenterology. Rich dietary sources include spinach, squash, broccoli, basil and almonds.
Dr. Mullin also recommends taking a supplement, especially before a flight or trip— traveling can bring on constipation because you tend to drink and move around less on airplanes or in cars. Exposure to different forms of bacteria in food and water, even if you're just in a different state, can also worsen the problem.
Tried-and-true treatment:Use a gentle laxative, but only when it's really needed (if you've been constipated for three or more days). "Because they affect the natural rhythms of the body, try to use them only as a one-time kick-start or you risk becoming dependent," says Dr. Palmon.
He recommends a laxative like MiraLAX, which is comparatively gentle and tasteless. It works by lubricating your intestines and making things flow easier (unlike other types, which bulk up or soften your stool). Or, if you prefer, try mineral oil or flaxseed oil; both work to naturally lubricate your intestines—and flaxseed oil has the bonus of also being rich in fiber. Take 1 to 3 Tbsp of either, ideally on an empty stomach just before bedtime so they don't interfere with the absorption of other foods or medications. Follow with a full glass of water or juice.
Alternative options:Brew some dandelion extract tea (available at health food stores). This herb can help improve digestion and relieve constipation. Or sip 1 to 2 oz of aloe vera juice (it comes in different flavors): Because it's thought to lower stomach acid levels, doctors sometimes recommend it for occasional use as a natural way to speed up your bowels.
Massage also helps: Turns out that massaging your belly (especially downward) for 2 to 3 minutes is a great way to get things going. You may also want to try rubbing along the sides of your legs. This stimulates points in your lymphatic system that are connected to colonic motility, explains Dr. Mullin.
Prevent it:Go easy on sugar-free foods. Artificial sweeteners, especially sugar alcohols like mannitol and sorbitol, can have a laxative effect in some people, especially in large doses. Avoiding caffeine and minimizing stress also helps, because these can stimulate the intestines—and the digestive process—to move too fast.
Tried-and-true treatment:Eat the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast) of easy-to-digest foods, and take an OTC medicine like Imodium (loperamide), which slows down intestinal contractions, or Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate), which coats the stomach and protects it from irritation.
Alternative options:Try melatonin supplements (best known for helping you sleep). "Melatonin is surprisingly effective for diarrhea related to IBS [irritable bowel syndrome]," says Dr. Mullin. This may be because melatonin quiets our gut and prepares our system for sleep. A cup or two of black tea and/or a glass of red wine may also help. Studies show that the tannins and flavonoids in both red wine and black tea help slow down overactive intestines and fight off diarrhea-causing microbes.
It's also important to stay hydrated. Just avoid sugary drinks, including 100% fruit juice and soft drinks. "As sugar is absorbed, it causes the gut to release more water than other foods do," so it can make diarrhea worse, says Ashley Koff, RD, author ofRecipes for IBS. Better picks: regular water, coconut water (an excellent source of electrolytes) or herbal teas.
Prevent it:If you're prone to motion sickness, take some Dramamine or Benadryl before a trip (both contain a similar active ingredient). "Antihistamines like Benadryl act on your brain to change your perception of motion," says Dr. Palmon.
To stop a previous bout of nausea caused by a virus or morning sickness from returning, stick to cold foods, as heat can make food smell more pungent. The lingering taste of food can also keep your stomach working hard to fend off nausea. If you don't have mouthwash handy, try a mix of baking soda and water (1/4 tsp baking soda to 1 cup water).
Tried-and-true treatment:Eat a little something, and stay hydrated. "An empty stomach can worsen nausea because there's nothing to absorb all its acid and juices," says Joy Bauer, RD, WD contributor and author ofSlim & Scrumptious. "Try to eat something small every 2 or 3 hours, and keep plain crackers, dry cereal or pretzels on your bedside table to cope with episodes in the middle of the night or early morning." The starches in these foods will help settle your stomach by absorbing stomach acid. A frozen fruit pop is also a good pick. "The simple carbohydrates are easy to digest, and the cool liquid makes the going-down part gentle on your system."
Alternative options:Try ginger, mint or something sour. Research has found that ginger and mint are effective for nausea that's related to chemotherapy and pregnancy. Sour foods have been anecdotally shown to counteract nausea, which may be one reason why lemon and pickles are often connected to pregnancy cravings.
Acupressure also works. "There's strong medical evidence that it can be a very effective remedy," says Dr. Mullin. He suggests pressing three pressure points: one on the inside of the forearm, about 2 inches up the arm above the wrist crease (this is what antinausea wrist bands stimulate); one on the webbing between the thumb and index finger, on the back of the hand; and one on the indentation between the tendons of the second and third toes—for 3 to 5 minutes each.
Prevent it:Trade in three large meals for five small ones to avoid putting excess pressure on your stomach, which can force acid up into your esophagus, says Bauer. If you're prone to heartburn, it's also a good idea to avoid mint, chocolate, caffeine and alcohol. "Mints are given out by restaurants after meals because they relax the lower esophagus, making you more likely to burp," says Dr. Palmon. "But in the process, they can cause heartburn by making it easier for acid to move up." Chocolate, caffeine and alcohol all cause the same problem.
Also avoid foods that pack a lot of heat as well as cheeses and heavy meats (think nachos or beef chili, for example): These high-fat foods can take longer to digest and can irritate the lining of your stomach. For heartburn-free flavor, Koff recommends basil, cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon and rosemary.
Tried-and-true treatment:Pop an antacid. The liquid versions (Mylanta, Maalox) break down acid faster, but the chewable ones (Tums) have more staying power. Some people prefer effervescent antacids like Alka-Seltzer, but keep in mind that these often contain aspirin—so you shouldn't use them if you have an ulcer or are taking any other pain relievers. For frequent or more severe heartburn, try one of the several histamine blockers (like Pepcid AC) that are available over the counter. These will reduce stomach acid by turning off the histamines that signal its production.
Alternative options:Licorice is an age-old remedy with some modern support—studies show it has antiinflammatory properties that can extend to the digestive system. If you try it, be sure to use DGL (deglycyrrhizinated) tablets. They contain no glycyrrhizin, a compound believed to induce water retention and high blood pressure. In addition, both marshmallow root (typically sold in teas or capsules) and slippery elm are thought to relieve heartburn by coating and soothing the lining of the esophagus.
Meanwhile, minimize bending your body: "You want to work with gravity, so keep yourself positioned so food flows downward," says Dr. Palmon. "When you lie down to rest or sleep, elevate your head about 6 inches." This makes it harder for stomach acid to flow up. Even better, stop eating 2 hours before bedtime so that your stomach is empty by the time you lie down.
Prevent it:Limit hard-to-digest foods, including dairy, anything with artificial sweeteners, and vegetables like beans, broccoli, onions and cabbage. These veggies contain a natural sugar called oligosaccharide that's difficult to break down. (When you do eat them, taking Beano, an OTC enzyme, may help you digest them.) Also avoid carbonated drinks. "They're essentially putting tiny air bubbles directly into your stomach," says Bauer.
Be sure to limit your salt intake: Salt attracts moisture, so the more salt we have in our body, the more water we retain.
Tried-and-true treatment:Take some Gas-X or Mylanta Gas. Both contain an ingredient called simethicone that helps break up gas bubbles. You may also want to eat something high in fiber, like an apple or a wholegrain snack. This will add bulk in your stomach, which, along with plenty of fluids, helps everything pass through more quickly. alternative options Sip some green tea or cranberry juice. Both act as mild diuretics, so they'll help you get rid of excess fluid buildup. You can also try taking a peppermint capsule (available at health food stores) before a meal. It's been prescribed for all kinds of stomach woes from nausea to diarrhea since the days of ancient Egypt. According to studies, peppermint seems to relax the smooth muscles of the digestive tract, easing symptoms. A recent German review found that 180- 200 mg capsules (coated, to ease stomach irritation) eased pain, bloating and gas in 58 percent of takers.
Exercise is also key (just be sure not to do it on a full stomach). Moving around helps excess gas work its way out of your digestive system; in fact, a study published in theAmerican Journal of Gastroenterologyfound that people with IBS were able to decrease the width of their bloated abdomens by pedaling an exercise bike. Meanwhile, sweating rids the body of both salt and excess fluid that can make you feel puffy and bloated.
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