Is Your Stomach Trying to Tell You Something?
Learn Simple Strategies to Reduce Your Risk for Digestive Disorders
As a kid, a run-of-the-mill tummy ache was a bummer, but it couldn’t keep you down for long. Now, as an adult, those tummy troubles may have evolved into major gastrointestinal (GI) problems that can seriously derail your work, your life, and your health. While there’s no magic potion for preventing all digestive disorders, you can reduce your risk of developing some—even those as severe as ulcers and gastric bleeding. With a few tweaks to your everyday life, plus working closely with your doctor if needed, you can safeguard your gut and help manage anything life decides to toss your way.
Peptic Ulcer Disease
A peptic ulcer is just as unpleasant as it sounds—it’s a sore that develops in the lining of your stomach or duodenum, the top of the small intestine. The most common symptom is a painful dull or burning sensation that you may feel anywhere from your navel to your breastbone. Some people also experience symptoms such as bloating, burping, decrease in appetite, vomiting, or weight loss.
One common cause of peptic ulcers is taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen for long periods of time. In fact, about a quarter of people who frequently take NSAIDs are at risk of developing peptic ulcer disease.
Treating an occasional headache with an NSAID won’t give you an ulcer, but taking the pills daily or multiple times per week can increase your chances of getting one. Always read the label on all your medications to make sure you aren’t exceeding the recommended dose. You may be more prone to developing an ulcer caused by NSAIDs if you are older than age 70, take more than two types of NSAIDs, have a history of peptic ulcers, take certain other types of medications such as corticosteroids, or drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes.
If you frequently take NSAIDs to treat arthritis or other conditions, work with your health care provider to protect your gut. Your doctor may reduce your dose of NSAIDs; switch you to another medication that isn’t associated with triggering peptic ulcers; prescribe medications that decrease stomach acid and protect the lining of your stomach and duodenum such as proton pump inhibitors or histamine receptor blockers; or prescribe a medication called Misoprostol, which prevents NSAID-induced ulcers.
In addition, you can reduce your risk of developing an ulcer while taking NSAIDs by always taking your medications with a meal, using the lowest dose needed, not smoking, and avoiding alcohol.
Another cause of ulcers is an infection with the bacteria Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). Most infections develop during childhood. In general, you can help guard against the gut-wrecking bacteria by washing your hands frequently with soap and water, especially before eating and after using the restroom, making sure that the food you eat is always properly cooked, and only drinking water from a safe, clean source.
GI bleeding is bleeding that starts anywhere along your digestive tract. Signs of GI bleeding include:
Stool that’s black or tarry
Vomit that contains blood
Dark or bright red blood in your stool
Shortness of breath
Many different diseases and conditions can lead to GI bleeding—some, like gastritis and hemorrhoids, you can try to avoid while others, such as tumors and ulcerative colitis, you can’t. Here are a few ways you can evade some of the common, preventable triggers for gastric bleeding:
Gastritis is inflammation in the lining of the stomach, which leaves it vulnerable to highly acidic digestive juices. One of the complications of gastritis is ulcers that may develop as the stomach lining breaks down and result in GI bleeding. Similar to peptic ulcer disease, gastritis can be caused by H. pylori infection and frequent use of NSAIDs. To prevent gastritis and GI bleeding, take the same steps listed above to avoid H. pylori and work with your doctor to protect your digestive tract if you require frequent treatment with NSAIDs.
Hemorrhoids are swollen and inflamed veins around your anus or in your lower rectum that can bleed. You may be able to prevent them by filling your diet with lots of high-fiber foods such as beans, fruits, vegetables, oats, nuts, seeds, brown rice, and whole-grain breads and cereals. Try to drink plenty of water and other nonalcoholic beverages throughout the day. Finally, avoid sitting on the toilet for long periods of time or straining during a bowel movement.
Contracting travelers’ diarrhea is no vacation, but unfortunately that’s when it’s most likely to strike. Travelers’ diarrhea occurs when you eat food or drink water that’s contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites that can make you ill. You can pick the germs up anywhere, though some high-risk destinations include parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Mexico, and Central and South America.
While travelers’ diarrhea is rarely dangerous, it can make for a rather unpleasant trip. To prevent the nasty stomach bug, stay away from raw fruits and vegetables unless you’re able to wash them in clean water or peel them. Avoid consuming raw, rare, or undercooked meat or fish. Only eat food that’s cooked and served hot. Drink bottled water and other beverages that come in sealed containers; avoid ice since it may have been made from unsafe water. Frequently wash your hands with soap and water especially before eating and after you use the restroom. If soap and clean water aren’t readily available, then be sure to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
If you’re traveling to a high-risk destination, consider packing over-the-counter medications such as Imodium or Pepto-Bismol in order to treat diarrhea symptoms if they occur.