Taking Care of Your Tummy

Bloating, heartburn, gas, constipation. Are you one of the eighty percent of adults who sometimes experience these and other stomach problems? If you are, do you turn to over-the-counter medication for relief? While those drugs can sometimes help, experts say they can also cause side effects or don’t address the underlying problem. Here’s their advice in how to treat common digestive complaints.

CONSTIPATION

Research tells us that fifteen percent of adults say they have two or fewer bowel movements per week. And the older we get, the more common constipation becomes.

“Contractions in your GI tract slow down as you age, so it takes longer for stools to pass through your colon,” says Purna Kashyap, M.D., a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. You’re also more likely to use medications that can exacerbate the problem.

Here’s what to do: Consume lots of fiber, which softens and bulks up stools. Sources of fiber: beans, whole grains, apples (my husband, Richard, started eating an apple for lunch instead of something more fattening and, with other cut backs, lost 30 pounds over a year without a formal ‘diet’), legumes (peas, lentils, soybeans, peanuts (yes, a peanut is not a nut), broccoli, carrots, and prunes. Some people turn to laxatives, but I’ve read that some can cause dependence and dizziness, diarrhea, and nausea. Also, according to comments in JAMA Internal Medicine, stool softeners don’t work better than a placebo. Suggestion: If you think you need a laxative, ask your doctor to recommend one.

HEARTBURN

The discomfort occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, the tube that carries food to your stomach

Here’s what to do: Gail Cresci, Ph.D., a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic, says to cut back on triggers, like alcohol, fried and spicy foods, garlic, onions, citric fruit, chocolate, and peppermint. Also, for occasional heartburn, try an OTC antacid. But if you experience indigestion more than twice per week for several weeks, see a doctor. You may have a more severe form of heartburn called GERD, which, over time, can damage the lining of your esophagus and require stronger medication.

GAS

Stephen Hanauer, M.D., medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Digestive Health Center in Chicago, says older adults can be more susceptible to flatulence and belching if the digestive process is impaired for any reason, such as difficulty to chew and swallow food.

Here’s what to do: If you’re belching, cut out gulping down food and liquids, gum chewing, smoking, and drinking carbonated beverages, all of which can cause you to swallow air. If you have gas from eating foods like broccoli, cauliflower, or beans, eating just small amounts over time can help your digestive system adapt to them. And, if you’ve introduced more fiber-rich foods into your diet, you should drink more water, too, says Samantha Heller, M.S., a dietitian at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.

BLOATING

Our digestive tract slows as we age, causing food to stay in it longer and sometimes triggering stomach pain and bloating. That can also be a sign of other problems, like diverticulosis, a condition in which small sacs develop in the lining of the lower part of the colon and affect many people over age 60, which can become more serious and develop into diverticulitis, when the sacs become inflamed.

Here’s what to do: Doctors used to recommend staying away from seeds and nuts, thinking they might inflame the sacs but a JAMA study of some 50,000 men found that those foods didn’t increase the risk of diverticulitis. Instead, the same high fiber diet that helps to keep us regular is a good defense, they say. Importantly, follow your doctor’s direction in having a periodic colonoscopy/endoscopy to monitor what’s happening throughout your digestive system. I’ve had these tests done a few times, for which the preparation is tolerably unpleasant, but the peace of mind knowing my digestive system is healthy is well worth it.