For some people, the problem with our national holiday munching spree
isn’t so much the extra five or ten pounds they’ll gain—it’s the bloating,
pain and other intestinal miseries they’ll have to endure.
Are you one of those folks?
Heartburn/GERD & Ulcers: Putting Out the Fire
What it is: Heartburn, also called acid indigestion, is the nasty burning sensation that occurs when the stomach’s acidic contents rise into the esophagus. It may signal gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD), in which the sphincter between the esophagus and the stomach doesn’t close properly. Obesity and smoking are GERD risk factors and certain foods—citrus fruit, tomato-based items and caffeinated drinks among them—can make it worse. An ulcer is a sore in the lining of either the stomach (gastric ulcer) or the beginning of the small intestine (duodenal ulcer). The use of alcohol, tobacco and certain painkillers called NSAIDs can cause ulcers, as can infection with a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori.
Who’s affected: About 20% of the US population experiences reflux each week, while 14.5 million people are living with ulcers (all figures are from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases [NIDDK]).
Signs and tests: While heartburn is usually associated with eating, ulcers generally cause a dull, gnawing ache that is relieved by eating; other symptoms include nausea, bloating and loss of appetite. Tests include a barium radiograph, in which X-rays are used to spot problems, and an upper endoscopy, in which a lighted tube is used to examine the esophagus and stomach.
Natural relief: The first step in extinguishing heartburn is to avoid the foods that provoke it along with tobacco and alcohol, which can loosen the stomach sphincter. And change your dining habits: Eat smaller meals more frequently, drink liquids before and after eating but not during meals, take a walk after dinner and don’t eat within three hours of bedtime.
A number of herbs are noted for their ability to ease heartburn, especially aloe vera juice, chamomile, turmeric and deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL). Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) has also helped some people, especially when taken with vitamin B1 (thiamine) and choline.
Aloe and DGL are also helpful in healing ulcers, as are marshmallow root (not the candy) and slippery elm. A lot of ulcer sufferers swear by fresh cabbage juice. And zinc-carnosine, an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, appears to inhibit H. pylori.
Indigestion: Soothing a Touchy Stomach
What it is: Eating too much, too quickly or under stress can cause indigestion, known as dyspepsia; chronic cases are referred to as nonulcer dyspepsia (NUD). It can also indicate the presence of gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining.
Who’s affected: Who knows how many millions of people suffer from at least occasional indigestion each year, but there are 3.7 million living with gastritis and 6.4 million who suffer from NUD.
Signs and tests: Bloating, nausea and general queasiness all mark indigestion. An X-ray or endoscopy may be ordered to rule out other conditions, particularly ulcers.
Natural relief: As in the case of heartburn, a change in eating habits may be in order. Don’t rush through meals and try to eat in relaxed, nonstressful surroundings. Occasional indigestion often responds well to activated charcoal tablets.
To relieve chronic indigestion, try combining probiotics—the good bacteria that aid digestion—with prebiotics such as FOS, which helps keep the little critters happy. Take natural enzymes with meals, such as papain and bromelain. Chamomile, peppermint and ginger can all help ease gas. And if you’ve been diagnosed with gastritis, vitamin B complex, zinc and beta-carotene can all help heal the stomach’s inner lining.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Protecting Your Intestines
What it is: Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is marked by swelling of the intestinal lining. The two types are Crohn’s disease, which most commonly involves the small intestine, and ulcerative colitis, which causes sores in the large intestine, or colon. Crohn’s appears to involve a genetic link; about 20% of its victims have a relative with some form of IBD. Food allergies may contribute to colitis (see the box above).
Who’s affected: Nearly 6 million people visit practitioners with IBD complaints each year; prevalence rates are 246 per 100,000 for colitis and 162 per 100,000 for Crohn’s.
Signs and tests: Both conditions can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, weight loss and fatigue; fever and skin problems may also occur. Tests include blood work, barium radiograph and colonoscopy, in which a lighted tube is used to examine the large intestine.
Natural relief: Probiotics taken in tandem with prebiotics have shown great promise in preventing relapses among people with IBD. Different probiotic strains seem to help different people, so always work with a trained practitioner.
Reducing inflammation goes a long way towards controlling IBD. Aloe vera helps soothe raw tissue; some practitioners also recommend slippery elm, alfalfa, devil’s claw, fenugreek and ground flax seed.
Fish oil, which contains the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, is another anti-inflammatory that has proven itself useful in managing IBD; the enteric-coated kind, which is designed to pass through the stomach intact, is recommended. Butyrate, another fatty acid, nourishes the cells that line the colon and may help the intestinal wall from becoming “leaky.”
Having ulcerative colitis increases your risk of developing colon cancer. Researchers have found that the B vitamin folate may help forestall cancer development.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Retraining Your Gut
What it is: Unlike IBD, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional disorder; it disrupts the normal, rhythmic contractions that push food through the intestines, causing them to become spasmodic and uncoordinated. No one is sure exactly what causes IBS, but stress appears to be a significant factor.
Who’s affected: Over 2 million people have IBS; they account for 1.3 million practitioners’ visits annually.
Signs and tests: Abdominal pain is the chief sign of IBS, in addition to bloating, either constipation or diarrhea (or both alternating) and the need to really run for the restroom. Since IBS is a matter of muscular dysfunction and not physical disease, the diagnosis is made by ruling out everything else (IBD, etc.).
Natural relief: Because of the role stress plays in IBS, finding some way to short-circuit the stress response is absolutely critical. Exercise not only reduces stress but also relieves muscle tension and tones the digestive system. Many IBS sufferers have found release in such practices as yoga, tai chi and meditation, and plain old heat (like that found in a sauna) can help cut cramping. In addition, adaptogenic herbs such as ginseng and rhodiola help the body handle stress.
Fiber, particularly the soluble kind found in produce and whole grains, helps normalize bowel function and regulates the entire digestive tract. On the other hand, too much dietary fat tends to discombobulate a finicky colon (use omega-3 supplements to ensure adequate intake of these essential fats). Digestive enzymes and probiotics are helpful.
As with other intestinal disorders, herbs play a key role in keeping IBS under control. Chamomile, ginger, oregano and peppermint—specifically the enteric-coated form—are all good.