Prevention & Recovery

Simple fixes for common digestion problems

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Prevention & Recovery

Simple fixes for common digestion problems

According to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation, over 20 million Canadians suffer from digestive disorders. Because of the wide range of disorders and possible symptoms, it’s possible to live with many of these ailments without ever being diagnosed. Here is a look at four of the most common digestion problems and their characteristics.

1. Acid reflux

What is it? Acid reflux is a more common term for gastroesophageal reflux disease, a condition where food or liquid moves back up from the stomach into the esophagus due to a relaxed lower esophageal sphincter (the muscle fibres that, when functioning properly, help keep the stomach closed). Common symptoms include heartburn, regurgitation and difficulty swallowing. Severe cases can lead to ulcers, dental issues and damage to the esophagus.

Who gets it? Most people will suffer from heartburn occasionally, but the high-risk groups for acid reflux include pregnant women and people who are overweight or over the age of 40.

What helps? Lifestyle changes can make a difference. Avoid smoking and consuming alcohol or any foods that trigger the symptoms, and ask your doctor if any medications you are currently taking could be contributing to the problem. Try using over-the-counter antacids to alleviate symptoms after meals and before bedtime.

When do you call the doctor?
If lifestyle changes and medication don’t improve your symptoms, or your symptoms worsen, you should visit your doctor.

2. Peptic ulcer
What is it?
A peptic ulcer is a sore that forms in the lining of your stomach or duodenum (the upper part of the small intestine) when it is corroded by acidic digestive juices. Most peptic ulcers are caused by Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a bacterium that infects the stomach, but other factors, including genetics, smoking, alcohol use and stress, can also play a role. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and acetylsalicyclic acid can also weaken the lining of the stomach, which may lead to ulcers. Symptoms include upper abdominal pain, weight loss, appetite loss and nausea.

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Who gets it? More than eight million people are infected with H. pylori, but only 10 to 15 per cent of them will develop peptic ulcers. The disorder is more common in men than in women and has a high incidence in First Nations communities.

What helps? The treatment of a peptic ulcer depends on the cause. In the case of NSAID-induced ulcers, an acid-suppressing medication will aid the healing process, as will ceasing to use NSAIDs. With H. pylori–related ulcers, antibiotics will also be prescribed to prevent recurring incidents. You should also avoid smoking, alcohol and other irritants when treating an ulcer.

When do you call the doctor? If you’re experiencing the symptoms of an ulcer, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. A physician can perform several tests to see if an H. pylori infection is the cause and will prescribe the right medication to help heal your ulcer. Left untreated, ulcers can lead to serious complications, including bleeding, obstruction of the stomach or duodenum, and perforation.

3. Lactose intolerance
What is it?
Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk and milk products. Sufferers lack the enzyme required to break down the lactose for absorption, which often leads to gas, bloating, cramps and diarrhea anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours after ingesting dairy products. Though lactose intolerance can cause great discomfort, there are no long-term effects and it is not dangerous.

Who gets it?
Over seven million Canadians suffer from lactose intolerance. The condition can develop at different stages in life, most often between early childhood and the late teen years, and is more common in certain ethnicities than others. It has been estimated that 70 per cent of the world’s population has difficulty digesting lactose.

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What helps? If you suffer from lactose intolerance, avoid consuming milk and other dairy products, specifically those that cause you the most discomfort. If you continue to consume lactose-laden foods and beverages, do so with meals rather than on their own, and choose low-lactose alternatives such as soy or rice milk. Over-the-counter enzyme supplement pills or drops can also be used to ease symptoms when digesting dairy products. Be sure to supplement the essential vitamins that milk contains high quantities of, including calcium and vitamin D.

When do you call the doctor?
A physician will be able to diagnose lactose intolerance by testing the hydrogen levels in your breath. Symptoms will abate with time and most likely won’t require medical attention.

4. Irritable bowel syndrome
What is it? Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) an intestinal disorder defined by abdominal cramping and changes in bowel movements (constipation, diarrhea or an alternation between both). Sufferers experience frequent bloating, discomfort and emotional distress. Though there is no specific cause that has been identified, it is thought that people who have IBS are particularly sensitive to certain foods and stress.

Who gets it?
According to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation, there are five million Canadians currently suffering from IBS. Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with IBS than men, and the syndrome often develops in the teen years or early adulthood.

What helps?
There is no cure for IBS, however certain lifestyle changes can help relieve symptoms. These include increasing your fibre intake, identifying your trigger foods and avoiding them, eating smaller meals, exercising regularly and avoiding intestinal stimulants such as alcohol and caffeine. Your doctor may also prescribe medication to alleviate symptoms or therapy to help with stress.

When do you call the doctor?
If you suspect you might have IBS, pay a visit to your doctor. Since the syndrome is not easily diagnosed, it’s important to rule out other conditions that have similar symptoms, such as celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease.

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Simple fixes for common digestion problems

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