Stomach Pain Facts & Myths

A man in a plaid shirt making a large bubble with his gumTummy trouble is never a fun thing. Aches and pains can keep you from enjoying your meal, going to work and in general are unpleasant interruptions in your daily life. But because your stomach can’t speak (well, verbally), it’s sometimes hard to interpret exactly what could be wrong – especially with all the different conditions, foods and myths floating around out there.

1. If I swallow gum, does it really take seven years to digest?

It’s doesn’t seem that hard to believe that gum could hang around for a long time in your stomach, since, unlike other foods, it doesn’t dissolve in your mouth when you chew it. However, gum really doesn’t stick to your insides and cause any digestive problems. Instead, your digestive system moves gum along, just like everything else that’s passing through, and eliminates it within a few days.

2. Does spicy food cause stomach ulcers?

For a long time, it was thought that eating spicy foods increased ulcer risks. But science finally caught up to this myth; it’s now understood that the majority of stomach ulcers are caused either by an infection with a bacterium called Helicobacterpyloiri (H.pylori) or by use of pain medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen (NSAIDs). That said, spicy foods may certainly aggravate an existing ulcer in some people, but they do not cause them.

3. Should I just avoid beans, since they cause so much gas?

Despite the many jokes about beans and flatulence, beans are not the main culprit of gas. Dairy foods actually have that honor, particularly if you’re lactose intolerant – which many of us in the Black community are. Also, the human body becomes less and less able to absorb lactose as we age. So if you find yourself “tooting” after eating dairy, you’re not alone. Look for lactose-free products or take the over-the-counter enzyme lactase before you eat dairy foods.

4. If I’m lactose intolerant, does that mean I should avoid all milk products?

Again, around 75% of African Americans are lactose intolerant. But all of us are inundated with messages about how important dairy products are to our overall health. People with lactose intolerance differ in their ability to tolerate particular dairy products – while one person may get symptoms from a single glass of milk, others may be able to drink up to two. Some people can tolerate yogurt or ice cream, but never, ever straight milk. Aged cheeses, such as Swiss and cheddar are often universally better-tolerated dairy choices. It’s often a matter of trial and error to find out which dairy foods – and how much – are safe for you.

5. Does fiber only help with constipation?

On the surface, it doesn’t seem likely that fiber, which is so well-known for improving constipation, could also aid with the flip side – diarrhea. But it can. Eating fiber-rich foods helps regulate the stools so that it’s not too hard or too loose. Fiber in the body works by either pulling more water from the colon to loosen stools (for constipation) or by absorbing water into the colon to firm up stools (for diarrhea).

6. Can smoking really help relieve my heartburn?

Contrary to the popular belief about a calming smoke, cigarette smoking may actually contribute to heartburn. Nicotine can relax the lower esophageal sphincter, a muscle between the esophagus and stomach, allowing the acidic contents of the stomach to splash back (reflux) into the esophagus. This increased acid reflux is the basis of heartburn.

7. Is it true that if I don’t have any symptoms, then I can’t have colon cancer?

Colon cancer often has no symptoms at all until its later stages, which makes early detection so important. After age 50, routine colorectal screening should include fecal occult blood tests annually, a flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years, and a colonoscopy every 10 years.

8. Just how uncomfortable is getting a colonoscopy?

The dreaded colonoscopy is actually not as dreadful as its made out to be. A colonoscopy – a procedure used to diagnose and treat problems in the colon and rectum – typically only lasts about 30-60 minutes and the patient receives anesthesia. However, it’s the colonoscopy preparation that might make people squirm, since the colon must be emptied, with the help of a liquid diet and a laxative drink a day or so before the procedure. Talk to your doctor to see what your preparation options are.

9. Will sitting up while you sleep prevent nighttime heartburn?

There’s no medical backing to the claim that heartburn sufferers must sit up in bed to avoid the symptoms of heartburn the next morning. You may find some relief in elevating your head and chest 4-6 inches, either with pillows under your head or with a block under your bed. But that’s as upright as you need to go.

10. Can IBS be controlled by diet alone?

Although certain foods can trigger irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms, changes to the diet are generally not enough. Sometimes just the act of eating can cause the abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation that IBS is known for. And stress and anxiety are other key components of IBS, often just as responsible for triggering symptoms. Keep a food and symptom journal to help you identify your specific triggers.

11. Is IBD is caused by stress?

While stress can aggravate many chronic conditions, the cause of inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, remains unknown. IBD is a term that refers to both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, conditions in which there is inflammation in the lining of the small and/or large intestines. Genetics appear to play some role, as do changes in the body’s immune system, possibly from bacteria or a virus.

12. Can my untreated celiac disease be the cause of my constant stomach problems?

Although the best known celiac disease symptoms include bloating, gas, and diarrhea, many people with the condition never have any of these symptoms. Celiac disease — an intolerance to the protein gluten — is frequently misdiagnosed when a health professional only looks for the classic symptoms. Other symptoms, which are just as prevalent, but unrelated to the gut, include: anemia, osteoporosis, depression, growth problems, and a skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis.

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