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Digestion Q&A

by Staff Writer
After eating, my stomach rumbles and I often get cramps. Is this indigestion? Should I take something?

What you're referring to could be indigestion. Indigestion typically causes pain, burning or cramping in the upper abdomen, usually after eating a meal. Some other symptoms you might experience include nausea or bloating. As gas or air moves through your digestion tract, your stomach may rumble or make "funny noises." Where does the air come from? Some people unconsciously swallow air when they eat. If you burp repeatedly after a meal, you've probably swallowed air and are experiencing cramps and indigestion as a result. If it's gas that's causing you to "rumble" and you experience it repeatedly, you may have problems digesting certain foods. A common concern is lactose intolerance, where you can't digest dairy products. This is particularly common in adults. Some people get gassy when they eat a lot of fiber and they're not used to it. If you're swallowing air when you eat, slow down the pace of your meal, don't talk when you eat or use a straw. Avoid chewing gum or drinking carbonated beverages. Taking an over-the-counter anti-gas product called simethicone may help to break up air or gas bubbles and relieve your symptoms. If your symptoms persist, see your doctor, because there are other problems, including irritable bowel syndrome, that can sometimes cause these symptoms.

I'm really gassy a lot of the time, with flatulence and burping but I don't usually have an upset stomach. Is this a problem or are some people just gassy?

If you're gassy a lot, you may have difficulty digesting certain foods. For example, it's common for adults to have problems digesting dairy products. You can have intolerances to other foods as well. Difficulty digesting dairy foods is called lactose intolerance. If not completely digested, the offending food remains in your digestive tract and bacteria in your intestines break it down and form gas. Certain foods like beans, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and some fruits contain sugars that are hard for some people to digest. As a result, they develop flatulence.

Burping is often due to swallowed air from eating a meal too fast or talking while eating. Some people are completely unaware that they swallow air when they eat. If you're burping after meals, try taking a gas relief product that has simethicone with meals and see if it helps. If you have these symptoms after eating dairy foods, avoid dairy or take an over-the-counter product that has lactase to help you digest it.

I feel like I have to push pretty hard to get my stool out sometimes. Am I constipated? How can I make it easier to go?

Yes, it sounds like you're experiencing constipation. Constipation refers to bowel movements that are too firm, dry or difficult to pass. It also refers to infrequent bowel movements, usually less than three per week. There are some things you can do to make it easier to go. Be sure you're drinking enough water throughout the day. Then add more fiber to your diet. Adults need between 25 and 35 grams of fiber a day. Most people get about half that amount. You can get fiber by adding more fruits, vegetables and whole grains to your diet. Another option is to take a fiber supplement that contains psyllium. Make sure you're walking or getting some exercise each day. Lack of exercise can worsen constipation. Some medications can cause constipation as well. Laxatives and stool softeners can offer a short-term solution. If the constipation doesn't resolve, see your doctor. Constipation can sometimes be a sign of more serious health problems.

I usually poop several times a day and sometimes it's loose. Do I have a medical problem?

It's not necessarily abnormal to have a bowel movement several times a day. For some people, three bowel movements a day is normal, while for others three times a week is typical. It's more concerning if the frequency of your bowel movements suddenly changes. For example, you typically have three or four bowel movements a week and you suddenly have three lose stools a day. That's something you should pay attention to. This is especially true if you have other symptoms like blood in your stool or abdominal pain or cramping. These symptoms can be caused by a number of intestinal problems including inflammatory bowel disease, food intolerances, intestinal infection or irritable bowel syndrome. If it's a change from what's typical for you, see your doctor.

I take heartburn medication a lot. Can I safely self-treat with over-the-counter medication or should I talk to my physician about prescription medications?

If you have persistent heartburn, see your doctor. This is a sign of a condition called gastroesophageal reflux or GERD. With GERD, the flap that separates the esophagus and stomach is weak. This allows acid to move backwards from your stomach into your esophagus causing heartburn. Over time, this can cause your esophagus to become inflamed or scarred. If you have this, it's important for your doctor to monitor the situation to make sure you're improving. Over-the-counter medications like antacids and medications that block acid production are fine for occasional use, but if you're having heartburn more than twice a week, see your doctor.

I love raw vegetables but every time I eat them, I start expelling gas. Is this normal? Is there a way to still get my veggies without becoming gassy?

It's not uncommon to experience gas from eating raw veggies, especially if you're not used to eating them. Raw vegetables contain natural sugars you can't completely digest. The bacteria in your intestines CAN digest these sugars. When they do, they produce gas. It's best to slowly add raw vegetables and other high-fiber foods to your diet to give your intestines a chance to adjust. This will reduce the amount of gas you have to deal with. You can also try taking an over-the-counter product that contains an enzyme called alpha-galactosidase. This enzyme helps to digest the sugars in raw veggies that you're having problems with. An example of such a product is Beano.

I get a bad stomach ache every time I get nervous and feel like I have to go number two. Can I do anything about my nervous stomach?

Your brain and digestive tract are closely connected. Your brain is constantly sending signals to the nerves that control your digestive tract, telling it what to do. Stress and anxiety can alter these signals and lead to tummy pain, the urge to have a bowel movement or diarrhea. Stress relief techniques like meditation or deep breathing episodes may help you control stress and calm your bowels. If you have this problem frequently, you may be suffering from a common condition called irritable bowel syndrome. Irritable bowel syndrome is a "functional" bowel problem. This means you have symptoms like abdominal cramping, bloating, diarrhea or constipation but there's no obvious damage to your digestive tract. People with irritable bowel syndrome seem to have a digestive system that's overly sensitive and contracts in an irregular manner. This usually leads to recurring problems with cramping, diarrhea, constipation or bloating. If you have your symptoms frequently, see your doctor to make sure it's nothing more serious.

I take a lot of laxatives but I heard that a person could get dependent on them. How often can I safely take laxatives? Are there other products that are effective?

Yes, it is possible to become dependent on laxatives. Certain laxatives called stimulant laxatives cause your intestines to contract with more force to help move food through your colon and out of your body. If you use these laxatives too long, your bowels can become deconditioned and "lazy" just as your muscles become weak and flabby when you don't exercise. This makes it hard to have a bowel movement without the help of a laxative.

To break this cycle, it's best to gradually wean yourself off of laxatives. At the same time, increase the amount of fiber in your diet. If you have problems getting enough fiber through diet, take an over-the-counter fiber supplement that contains psyllium with water. Increase the amount of fluid in your diet to help soften your stool. If you experience constipation in the future, try a stool softener instead.

I noticed when I eat wheat my stomach really hurts. Could I be gluten intolerant?

It's possible. Gluten intolerance in the classic sense is a condition where your immune system reacts to a protein in wheat called gluten. This is also called celiac disease. As a result of this immune response, the small intestines become inflamed and damaged. Eating foods that contain gluten make the problem worse. People with true gluten intolerance must completely avoid gluten in any form. Even tiny amounts can cause inflammation. Other people are "sensitive" to gluten. This means they develop symptoms like tummy pain, cramping, bloating or diarrhea when they eat foods like wheat that contain gluten but they don't have the immune response that people with celiac disease do. The best way to find out whether you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity is to see your doctor. There are blood tests your doctor can use to help make the diagnosis.

What exactly is lactose intolerance? Is it an allergy to dairy products?

People with lactose intolerance don't have enough of an enzyme called lactase in their digestive tract to break down lactose, a sugar in milk and dairy products. As a result, this sugar passes through the intestines undigested. Once there, intestinal bacteria break it down and produce gas. This leads to flatulence, diarrhea, bloating and cramping. People with lactose intolerance experience these symptoms only when they eat foods that contain lactose. Some people with lactase deficiency can tolerate small amounts of lactose without symptoms while others experience symptoms when they drink even small amounts of milk or eat a little ice cream. Lactose intolerance isn't a dairy allergy. Allergies are an over-reaction of the immune system. Lactose intolerance is an inability to digest lactose, the most abundant sugar in dairy foods. An enzyme supplement that contains lactase supplies this missing enzyme so people with lactose intolerance can enjoy dairy foods without symptoms.

Sometimes I get gas but I have to hold it in because I'm in public. Will this hurt me?

Nobody can blame you for wanting to hold in the gas when you're in public, although passing gas is a very normal phenomenon. Holding in gas can make you feel pretty uncomfortable, but it won't harm your intestines or cause any lasting damage. At some point, if the gas builds up to a certain point, it'll come out regardless of how hard you try to control it. After all, your muscles will get tired of holding it in after a while! If possible, escape to a place where you can let it go and get some relief. If certain foods seem to trigger your symptoms like beans or veggies, don't eat them when you're know you're going to be around people. Taking a supplement that contains alpha galactosidase like Beano before eating these foods may also help. All in all, holding in gas is just uncomfortable - it's not dangerous.

This summary is intended for general informational purposes only, and should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. You should read product labels. In addition, if you are taking medications, herbs, or other supplements you should consult with a qualified healthcare provider before taking any over-the-counter medication as they may interact with other medications, herbs, and nutritional products. If you have a medical condition, including if you are pregnant or nursing, you should speak to your physician before taking these products. Consult a healthcare provider immediately if you experience side effects.