Health & Wellness
Improving Your Digestive Health

Improving Your Digestive Health

By Taylor Arnold

Chances are, you’ve experienced digestive issues at some point in your life. From common problems like gas and bloating to more serious conditions like ulcers and gallstones. These ailments can run the gamut from being uncomfortable to downright painful. The good news is you can alleviate (and often eliminate) these symptoms with a combination of good nutrition and the right information. Read on as we break down a range of gastric issues and diseases and ask the experts to weigh in on the latest advancements surrounding your digestive health.

Digestive Problems: 
What are they, and how are they managed?

Indigestion
The symptoms of indigestion may include: Gas • Nausea • Acidic taste • Growling stomach • 
Abdominal pain • Burning in the stomach

Also called dyspepsia, indigestion is that feeling of fullness or discomfort during or after a meal. “Indigestion is one of the most common symptoms we see in gastroenterology,” says Dr. Preston Stewart, gastroenterologist at Digestive Healthcare of Georgia. “We always start by evaluating your diet. There are a number of triggers like fatty foods, citrus, peppermint, chocolate, alcohol and caffeinated beverages. There are also a number of over-the-counter-medicines that can cause indigestion, and a common category is the NSAIDs. This includes Ibuprofen, Aleve and Advil. These can contribute to injury to the upper GI tract.”

A person’s risk for indigestion increases with alcohol consumption, as well as the use of drugs like aspirin that may irritate the stomach. If the indigestion doesn’t improve after eliminating these triggers, your doctor may prescribe medications. But if indigestion is accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating, or pain radiating to the jaw, neck or arm, seek medical attention immediately.

Acid Reflux (Heartburn)
The symptoms of acid reflux may include: Heartburn • Chest pains • Nausea • Regurgitation

Heartburn is often used interchangeably with acid reflux, and it is the symptom you feel when acid splashes up and out of the stomach and irritates the esophagus. About 10 percent of Americans experience heartburn on a daily basis, and up to 50 percent of women experience it while pregnant.

A common cause of this problem is too much food in the stomach. Foods high in fat and oil can lead to heartburn, as well as certain medications. Stress can also be a trigger because it increases the acid production that causes heartburn. Generally speaking, heartburn is caused by too much pressure on the stomach, which is why obese people and pregnant women experience this condition. Most doctors will recommend antacids for infrequent heartburn, and drugs like Prevacid, Prilosec, or Nexium for chronic episodes.

Occasional heartburn isn’t dangerous, but chronic heartburn can indicate serious problems and can develop into gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). “More serious conditions such as cancer may mimic symptoms of heartburn,” says Dr. Tanvi Dhere, assistant professor of the division of digestive diseases at Emory University. “You should seek medical attention if your symptoms do not improve with the use of over the counter antacids, you are losing weight unexpectedly, you have difficulty swallowing, or you develop dark, tarry appearing stools. You should also consult with your physician if you have a strong family history of esophageal or gastric cancer.”

Lactose Intolerance
The symptoms of lactose intolerance may include:Abdominal pain • Abdominal bloating • Gas • Diarrhea • Nausea

Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Symptoms typically occur 30 minutes to two hours after eating or drinking milk products, and while this condition isn’t dangerous, it can be very uncomfortable.

Children can be lactose intolerant, but it is more likely to develop in adulthood as our bodies begin to produce less lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose. While it isn’t possible to outgrow this condition, it is manageable with diet. “Depending on severity, some people with lactose intolerance are able to consume up to 10 grams of lactose a day,” says Megan Mohannadione, clinical dietician at Emory Bariatric Center. “Most people also do well with lower-lactose dairy foods such as hard and soft cheeses, yogurt, buttermilk and goat’s milk. If you can’t tolerate any kind of dairy, use soymilk and be sure to eat a variety of green, leafy vegetables and salmon for calcium and vitamin D.”

Peptic Ulcers
The symptoms of peptic ulcers may include:Burning pain felt anywhere from your stomach up to your chest • Vomiting of blood • Dark blood in stool • Nausea • Appetite changes • Unexplained weight loss

Peptic ulcers are open sores that develop on the inside lining of your esophagus, stomach and the upper portion of your small intestine. “The two most common causes of peptic ulcers are NSAIDs and/or bacterial infections,” Dr. Stewart says. “First, we want to remove the offending agent, so your doctor will likely tell you to stop taking aspirin. We diagnose peptic ulcers with an upper endoscopy or a barium swallow test so the radiologist can see the outline of the stomach.”

While smoking and excess alcohol consumption can increase your risk for peptic ulcers, it is a myth that they are caused by stress. “Stress can cause pain and indigestion that can feel like an ulcer,” he says. “But there is not a direct link between ulcers and emotional stress.”

If your peptic ulcer wasn’t caused by aspirin or other pain relievers, your doctor will put you on antibiotics or acid-reducing medications to relieve the pain and allow your ulcer to heal. This treatment is usually successful, but if your symptoms continue, your doctor may recommend an endoscopy to rule out other possible causes for your peptic ulcers.

Diverticulitis
The symptoms of diverticulitis may include: Sudden pain in the lower abdomen • Change in bowel habits • Fever • Abdominal tenderness • Nausea and vomiting • Constipation • Diarrhea

Diverticulitis occurs when small sacs or pouches of the inner lining of the intestine (called diverticulosis) become inflamed or infected, resulting in cramping, bloating or nausea and vomiting. This condition is most common in people over age 60, and most doctors will agree that a low-fiber diet is a contributor.

Treatment of diverticulitis depends on the severity of your symptoms, but most of the time your doctor will recommend rest, a heating pad for your belly and possibly pain medications or antibiotics. Once the symptoms subside, you’ll need to maintain a high fiber diet and limit coffee, tea and alcohol, which can make constipation worse.

“While diverticulitis may recur, it generally is not a chronic condition in the sense of being ever present, constantly inflamed or infected,” says Dr. David Weinstein, gastroenterologist at Saint Joseph’s Hospital. “It is important to understand that, with the exception of some new studies suggesting that aspirin and NSAID products may increase the risk of diverticular bleeding and diverticulitis, both events cannot be prevented. It is an old wives’ tail that peanuts, and popcorn will cause a diverticular complication.”

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
The symptoms of GERD may include: A burning sensation in your chest • Regurgitation of food or sour liquid • Dry cough • Chronic sore throat • Chest pain

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic digestive disease that occurs when stomach acid flows back into your esophagus. “Although the terms GERD and heartburn are often used interchangeably, heartburn is actually a symptom of GERD,” says Dr. Rodney Harris, chief of gastroenterology for Kaiser Permanente of Georgia. “Complications of GERD include esophageal stricture, which is the narrowing or tightening of the esophagus, as well as gastrointestinal bleeding, adult onset asthma and difficulty swallowing foods.”

Most people can manage the discomfort of heartburn with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications, but for people with GERD, these remedies may offer only temporary relief. “There are two classes of medication containing acid-blocking agents that have been used for the past 25 years to treat GERD,” Dr. Harris explains. “Histamine receptor blockers, such as Ranitidine and Famotidine, work fairly well for patients who experience symptoms two to three times per week. For those with more severe symptoms, the use of the proton pump inhibitors, such as Prevacid, work well to block most of the acid production.”

Gallstones
The symptoms of gallstones may include: Sudden pain in the upper right portion of the abdomen • Sudden pain in the center of the abdomen, just below the breastbone • Back pain between the shoulder blades

Gallstones are hard, pebble-like deposits that form inside the gallbladder. They can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. “Classic symptoms for gallstones are episodic discomfort in the upper right abdomen,” Dr. Stewart says. “It typically comes on suddenly and over an hour or two, then it will dissipate.” 

Many people with gallstones have never had symptoms, and the chance of symptoms or complications from gallstones is low. They are often found during a routine x-ray, abdominal surgery, or other medical procedure. However, if a large stone blocks either the cystic duct or common bile duct, you may have a cramping pain in the middle to right upper abdomen. In general, patients who have symptoms will need surgery either right away, or after a short period of time. But the good news is, nearly all patients who have gallbladder surgery won’t have symptoms again.

Crohn’s & Colitis
Both colitis and Crohn’s disease are classified as inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). This is the general name for diseases that cause inflammation in the intestines. Colitis is a general term for a number of causes that result in swelling of the large intestine. Crohn’s is a chronic disorder that causes inflammation of the digestive or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, resulting in pain that can make the intestines empty frequently, causing diarrhea.

Crohn’s disease can be difficult to diagnose, as the symptoms are very similar to other digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ulcerative colitis. “Diarrhea and abdominal pain may be seen in both diseases,” says Dr. Dhere. “However, patients with inflammatory bowel disease may experience unexpected weight loss, loss of appetite, rectal bleeding, or periodic fevers, which are not commonly seen in IBS patients.”

Your Digestive Health: The Prognosis
While digestive issues differ from person to person, medical experts agree that your diet has everything to do with your digestive health. “The digestive tract is the barrier between our environment and what goes into our bodies,” says Dr. Edward Lin, director of Emory Gastroesophageal Treatment Center. “So much happens at this barrier that protects us from toxins, helps breakdown otherwise indigestible food into absorbable nutrients, sends signals to other parts of your body, and finally flushes out unwanted material.  Even though the digestive tract is very resilient, it should not be neglected.” 

Editorial Resources
Digestive Healthcare of Georgia, www.digestivehealthcare.net
Dr. Mehmet Oz, www.doctoroz.com
Emory Bariatric Center, www.emoryhealthcare.org/bariatrics
Emory Gastroesophageal Treatment Center, 
www.emoryhealthcare.org/general-surgery
Emory University, www.emoryhealthcare.org
Kaiser Permanente of Georgia, www.kp.org
Saint Joseph’s Hospital, www.stjosephsatlanta.org


The Scoop on Poop

The next time you use the bathroom, consider taking a look before you flush. Your waste products, especially your stool, can tell you a lot about your health. The color, consistency and shape are all indicators of what’s going on inside your body and may serve as warning signs for more serious illnesses.

Color
Dr. Oz’s Poop Color Chart gives suggestions as to what each color could mean:
• Brown – Normal
• Red – Lower gastrointestinal bleeding
• Green – Crohn’s disease
• Yellowish – gallbladder disease
• Gray/White – pancreatitis
• Black – upper gastrointestinal bleeding

Consistency/Shape
Cracks, pellet-like forms and watery consistency are all things to look out for in your stool. Too much water might indicate a food allergy while the pellets might mean you are not getting enough fiber.

If you are noticing inconsistency in your stool, you should make note of it and go see your doctor. For more information, visit www.doctoroz.com.