Why is my stomach hurting?
Your digestive tract is one of your body’s most vital systems—it takes your food on an amazing journey once your lunch leaves your lips. First, it travels down the esophagus to the stomach, where acids start breaking it down so your body can use it. After a few hours of digestion, your food then moves through the small intestine, where most of its nutrients are absorbed. After that, it carries on to the large intestine, finally making its grand exit. Although it’s a complicated process, digestion is designed to happen so seamlessly that we rarely notice how busily our bodies are working. Sometimes, however, things go wrong, bringing on uncomfortable abdominal pain. Here are a few reasons why your belly may be achings:
1. Heartburn or acid indigestion
One of the most common digestive complaints, heartburn is described as a feeling of burning behind the sternum, with the discomfort often radiating upwards toward the mouth. It can also be described as a cramping, bloating, or a stabbing feeling. Heartburn happens when the sphincter muscle in the stomach doesn’t close properly, allowing stomach acid into the wrong areas of the intestinal tract. In many people, heartburn can be exacerbated by large meals, spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine. While taking an antacid may bring on relief naturopath Adam Prinsen says suppressing stomach acid may not be the best long-term solution. “Stomachs produce acid for a reason: to digest the protein in your stomach,” he explains. “If you don’t have enough of it, you will compromise your digestion.” And that could make the problem worse. Because sphincters are affected by stress, Prinsen recommends calming your nerves as a first step. “Your digestive system won’t work properly when you’re stressed,” he explains, “because your body is in a fight-or-flight response—so all your blood goes to your muscles, rather than to your digestive system. Because people are always in a chronic state of stress, the digestive system eventually just shuts down.” The secret to easing heartburn may be as simple as slowing down.
2. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Though the causes of IBS are vague, it has become one of the most common lower bowel complaints, especially among women under 40. According to gastroenterologist Robert Enns, MD, IBS is associated with bowels that work too quickly or too slowly, or sometimes merely with discomfort. “Nobody really knows what causes it,” he says. There is effective medication to treat IBS, but Dr. Enns recommends patients modify their lifestyles first by managing stress and avoiding things like caffeine and foods high in saturated fat. Prinsen says it’s hard to prescribe a one-size-fits-all treatment for IBS because it is associated with so many symptoms. However, he often recommends testing for food sensitivities, which can set off a negative chain reaction in the body. He says that sometimes the problem can even be related to a functional liver problem, which may be the result of suppressing anger, frustration or resentment, or from consuming too much alcohol.
3. Stomach ulcer (or peptic ulcer)
“Ulcers usually give you pain when your stomach is empty, as opposed to heartburn, which usually comes on after consuming certain foods,” Dr. Enns explains. In fact, ulcers tend to feel better after eating. Enns says that anti-inflammatory drugs, which are commonly taken for arthritis, headaches, and premenstrual syndrome, can cause ulcers. Helicobacter pylori bacteria may also cause some peptic ulcers (it disrupts the mucous layer that protects the stomach and small intestine). While it’s now known that stress doesn’t directly cause peptic ulcers, uncontrolled anxiety can exacerbate the condition. Prinsen notes that people with aggressive, type-A personalities, and those who tend to worry, are more prone to suffer from peptic ulcers. If you suspect an ulcer may, visit a healthcare professional for a simple diagnostic blood test. Medical doctors may prescribe an antibiotic or medication that helps protect the mucous lining. As a naturopathic remedy, Prinsen recommends powdered marshmallow root because he says it mimics the mucous the body should be producing naturally.
4. Ulcerative colitis
A form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), ulcerative colitis typically affects the colon, resulting in bloody diarrhea. “It strikes right at the bottom of the bowel,” explains Dr. Enns. “It’s as if someone has rubbed sandpaper on the lower bowel, resulting in something like road rash. It tends to give diarrhea, with bleeding of varying severity.” People who have ulcerative colitis tend to have diarrhea at night. Dr. Enns says that’s a sign that something serious could be going on, especially if it is accompanied by blood in the stool, or weight loss. Ulcerative colitis should be treated with medication.
5. Celiac disease
Essentially an allergy to gluten (which is typically found in wheat), this autoimmune disorder often manifests itself with diarrhea and bloating. “Celiac disease doesn’t usually doesn’t give abdominal pain, indigestion or heartburn,” explains Dr. Enns. “Diarrhea is definitely the most common complaint.” Celiac disease, which can be diagnosed with a blood test, is best treated by sticking to a gluten-free diet. “Some people may not have celiac, but they may find they are gluten sensitive,” adds Dr. Enns, “so they may also feel better when they’re not eating a lot of wheat or gluten.” However, eliminating gluten from your diet if you’re not sensitive to it could be bad for your health. Consult your doctor, naturopath or registered dietitian before making major changes to your eating habits.