Is Your Tummy Trying to Tell You Something?
Your stomach is an organ that should not be ignored, especially as most of us experience tummy problems regularly. People often dismiss stomach issues, but your tummy can offer you insights into your overall health that could be important. Cramps and bloating can be red flags highlighting that your health needs more care and consideration. Not only a reflection of physical problems, our stomach can also be linked to emotional triggers. Therefore, it’s important to listen to your gut and give it the care and attention it deserves.
It is useful to know what your stomach is trying to show you and how you can overcome day-to-day tummy problems. It is also important to know which symptoms point towards more serious health issues and when you should see a doctor. Here, Dr Ayesha Akbar, Consultant Gastroenterologist at St Mark’s Hospital explains the common problems our digestive systems experience and how best to reduce and combat them. Dr Akbar is chair of the neurogastroenterology committee of the British Society of Gastroenterology.
Why am I constipated?
Dr Akbar says: “Constipation could be the most obvious cause as to why you have a bloated stomach. Constipation usually occurs when waste remains in the intestines for too long. This causes it to ferment; producing wind, as well as making your tummy feel hard and painful. Numerous factors are linked to constipation, including stress, anxiety and depression, side effects of medication, lack of exercise, not drinking enough fluids and a change in routine. In addition, if you aren’t getting enough sleep, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol which can also lead to constipation and bloating. Cancer can also be a rare cause.”
Why do I have diarrhoea and an urgency to go?
Dr Akbar says: “Diarrhoea is extremely common if you suffer with IBS, often occurring soon after eating. Due to our stomachs being formed of a complex system of nerves, IBS occurs because of a loss of coordination, which causes diarrhoea and and/or constipation and stomach discomfort. In addition, IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) conditions- Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis- normally trigger an urgency to go to the loo and uncomfortable and painful cramps. Alongside this you may experience weight loss, bloating and blood in your faeces. Gastroenteritis causes short lived diarrhoea. Food allergies/intolerances including coeliac disease and lactose intolerance, and bile salt malabsorption can result in diarrhoea. Rarely, persistent diarrhoea can be a sign of cancer.”
What is the cause of my stomach cramps, bloating and wind?
Dr Akbar says: “Cramps, bloating and wind can be a sign of IBS, IBD, a food intolerance or food allergy, or a general infection. By keeping hydrated and drinking large amounts of water, you can potentially reduce these problems because dehydration and electrolyte imbalances can stop digestion and cause your body to hold on to excess water. If you eat too fast you inhale air, which can cause bloating and result in excess gas. In addition, PMS makes you susceptible to constipation and water retention- bloating increases as ovulation takes place as more fluids and blood builds up”.
What are the foods that can cause bloating?
Dr Akbar says: “There are numerous foods that can cause bloating and this very much depends on the person. However, there are seven key foods that often cause bloating in many people. Firstly, fruits including apples and watermelons cause bloating because they contain fructose. You may suffer from ‘fructose malabsorption’ and find you bloat after eating them. It’s worth noting that apples aren’t as bad if they’ve been cooked. Secondly, although garlic is a great antibacterial, it contains bloating producing fructans. Beans contain alpha-galactosidase sugars which can cause gas and broccoli can cause bloating for some people as it belongs to cruciferous vegetable family. Fizzy drinks are the most common cause of bloating due to the high amounts of carbon dioxide they contain. Lentils are very high in fibre that can make you gassy if you consume too many. To avoid this, you should soak lentils well and opt for light coloured ones as they’re a little lower in fibre than the darker ones. Finally, some sweeteners such as sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol can cause digestive problems.”
Is there anything that can help my tummy?
Dr Akbar says: “There are four things worth trying to help combat tummy issues. Probiotics that are commonly added to foods such as yoghurt or taken as a supplement have the potential to calm your stomach and reduce symptoms of lactose intolerance, IBS and Ulcerative Colitis. They won’t act overnight though and you should try them for six weeks. The low-Fodmap diet is something else I recommend trying. It stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols- poorly absorbed sugars that rapidly ferment in the gut. These are found in milk, wheat and some fruit and vegetables. Try cutting out these foods and slowly reintroducing them to help your stomach. However, if you try the low-Fodmap diet, do so with the guidance of a dietitian. Something else to try is reducing your carbohydrate and dairy intake. This may help with bloating as many people’s digestive systems can’t break down lactose or gluten. Give it a go for a week or two, but if it’s not having a good effect, do reintroduce these foods as you need calcium and carbohydrates in your diet. Finally, turmeric could help with your tummy problems. Studies show curcumin, found in turmeric, has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can relieve inflammatory disorders including Crohn’s and arthritis.”
When should I worry?
Dr Akbar says: “You should never ignore any continuing or persistent stomach problems- especially if they get worse, you have an alteration in your bowel movements or it is waking you up in the night. If you find blood in your faeces you should get checked by your GP straight away as this could be a sign of bowel cancer. Weight loss, loss of appetite or a family history of bowel cancer should all be reasons to seek medical advice.”
Article reproduced with permission from St Marks Hospital Foundation/pha media - 2016
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Next review: 20 February 2021