Dietary Tips for Digestive Distress

You may have eaten a large, spicy meal at one time or another, only to end up with an upset stomach (or other digestive woes). The occasional bout of heartburn isn't always of great concern, but when it happens frequently, it's time to stop and take notice. Some common symptoms of digestive distress include:
  • A burning sensation in the stomach
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating or feeling full
  • Belching or gas
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Acidic taste in the mouth
  • A growling or gurgling stomach
So how do you know if your symptoms are serious?

Heartburn, that all-too-familiar burning sensation in your chest, throat and stomach, affects about 20 percent of Americans at least once a week. Sometimes called "acid indigestion," it occurs when stomach acid comes up from the stomach and into the throat. If this happens repeatedly it can result in esophagitis, ulcers or strictures (narrowing of the esophagus), and can increase the risk of esophageal cancer. Regularly occurring heartburn can also be a sign of a more serious condition like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Indigestion, also called "dyspepsia," is defined as persistent or recurrent pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen. Indigestion is common and can affect people of all ages. But persistent indigestion is often the sign of an underlying problem, such as GERD, ulcers or gallbladder disease.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), defined as chronic reflux of stomach acid into the esophagus, affects 5-7 percent of the population. The two symptoms that indicate you could have GERD include persistent heartburn (two or more times per week) and difficulty swallowing (due to acid irritation that has caused the esophagus to become inflamed). The severity of GERD depends on the degree of dysfunction of the esophageal sphincter as well as the type and amount of fluid brought up from the stomach.

Peptic ulcers are characterized by sores (ulcers) in the lining of the stomach or the duodenum (the first portion of the small intestine). No single cause of ulcers has been identified, but it is clear that ulcers are the result of an imbalance in digetive fluids in the stomach and/or duodenum. However, recent research suggests that most ulcers are caused by the corkscrew-shaped bacterium known as Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). A person can have an ulcer for some time without having any specific symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they can include a burning pain in the middle of the upper stomach between meals or at night, bloating, heartburn, nausea or vomiting. Ulcers can heal on their own, but it's best to get a medical evaluation and to review treatment options with your medical provider. Some people believe they can self-medicate by drinking milk for temporary relief. While milk does coat the stomach lining and provide initial relief, it can make an ulcer worse by stimulating the stomach to produce more acid, which further attacks the ulcer.

You're not doomed to suffer from digestive distress for the rest of your life. In addition to your doctor's advice, the following dietary and lifestyle changes can help prevent and control heartburn, indigestion, GERD and ulcers by decreasing gastric secretions and minimizing regurgitation.

Foods to Avoid

Although every person reacts to foods differently, it's a good idea to narrow down the foods that might cause you problems. Avoid or limit the following foods and beverages, which are known to cause irritation and spasms, until you can pinpoint your specific triggers:
  • Alcohol
  • Butter or margarine
  • Caffeine-containing foods and beverages
  • Carbonated beverages
  • Chocolate and cocoa
  • Citrus fruits and citrus juices
  • Coffee (regular and decaf)
  • Cream-based sauces
  • Fatty meats
  • Fried foods
  • Garlic
  • Gravy
  • High-fat foods
  • Mint flavors
  • Nuts and nut butters (including peanut butter)
  • Oils
  • Onions
  • Pastries
  • Pepper
  • Peppermint
  • Salad dressings
  • Spearmint
  • Spicy foods
  • Tomatoes and tomato products
  • Vinegar

Tips for Meal Planning

Planning your meals and mealtimes can help prevent heartburn in the first place.
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals that are higher in protein, which helps keep acid levels more consistent.
  • Drink fluids between meals, but limit beverages during meals since they may cause bloating.
  • Avoid stressful situations at mealtimes. Eat in a calm, relaxed atmosphere making sure to eat slowly and chew your food completely.
  • Attain and maintain a desirable weight. Excess weight puts pressure on the abdomen and internal organs and can lead to digestive problems.
  • Remain upright (standing or sitting) for 30 minutes after eating. This helps relieve pressure.
  • Stop eating several hours before bedtime. If you lie down or fall asleep soon after eating, you're more likely to suffer acid reflux.

Other Lifestyle Habits

These other tips will also help prevent digestive distress:
  • Don't smoke. Smoking causes a host of serious diseases, but it also negatively affects your digestive system. Smoking is known to cause heartburn, peptic ulcers and other digestive distresses.
  • Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing. Tight clothing and belts put pressure on the abdomen and increase reflux and discomfort.
  • Elevate the head of your bed while sleeping.
  • Ask your doctor about antacids. They can help increase pressure on the lower sphincter (a good thing!) and neutralize gastic contents. Always use as directed and with your doctor's approval.
  • Don't exercise on a full stomach. Wait at least two hours between eating and exercising to prevent the exercise-induced heartburn.