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Dietary Tips for Digestive Distress

Stop Your Bellyaching!

You've probably 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 something 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% 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% 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 sometime without having any specific symptoms. When symptoms 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.

Diet and Lifestyle Habits to Stop Your Bellyaching

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 meal times 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.

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Member Comments

  • great tips. many have worked for me.
  • Don't have reflux or indigestion or belly aches or bloating... but I can imagine anyone cutting out the stuff on that list would stop suffering those things because they would have NOTHING left to eat!!!! LOL
  • Losing some weight and cutting sugar and wheat carbs and all the reflux is gone ...
    I was told by a Professor with a doctorate and works with hundreds of different families of chiles all day, that the capsaicin in capsicums actually fight the stuff that produce ulcers and help your digestive health. Your receptors might be firing, but it isn't physically doing damage.
  • Wouldn't it just be easier to say "don't eat"??
  • Yikes, I eat all but 6 of the items on the list.
  • If you stop eating all the foods on the list, what is there left to eat?
  • Ditto what Woubbie said.
    I have had GERD for more than 20 years.
    I can eat all kinds of fatty or spicy foods without heartburn, but a few bites of bread will bring on the pain.
    As my GI recommends, eat a "no white" diet
    if you have a little heartburn eat 1/2 banana
  • No starch, no sugar, no GERD.
  • Drinking water can cause my Gerd at night. If it is really bad at night even though I took my morning meds a tablespoon of vinegar will help the burning in your throat. Took me awhile to try this as it seemed so strange but it did work.
  • A tbs of juice from a jar of pickles can relieve indigestion very quickly.
  • Helpful, but the list is only a very general guide. Many foods that bother me aren't on the list. Other helpful foods are. For example, I have found that peppermint is actually good for my belly. Nuts are good, too, in moderation and chewed thoroughly, especially for those of us trying to keep our fiber intake up. I think you have to keep a food diary and just figure it out for yourself what bothers you and what doesn't
  • To Princessdi62, I have heard of LINX, but it is fairly new technology. Last year I had Nissan fundoplication for severe GERD. It's major surgery and not for everyone, but I am pretty much reflux free after having reflux since I was a small child, so I am pleased with the outcome.
    What amazes me is that nobody is mentioning the importance of drinking plain ordinairy water.Quite often the acidity felt is due to the body being in need of water.Many people fail to drink enough water throughout theday,perfering to drink tea,coffee, carbonated drinks ,fruit juice when in fact all of these can affect the gut.Strong tea and coffee can cause indigestion.....M
    any people say they are unable to eat breakfast first thing because they feel sick,drinking a glass of water can prevent that.

About The Author

Tanya Jolliffe Tanya Jolliffe
Tanya earned a bachelor's degree in dietetics and nutrition and has more than 20 years of experience in nutrition counseling and education. She is a member of the American Association of Diabetes Educators. See all of Tanya's articles.

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