Why is my stomach hurting?
Your digestive tract is one of your body’s most vital systems-it takes your food on an amazing journey once your lunch leaves your lips. First, it travels down the esophagus to the stomach, where acids start breaking it down so your body can use it. After a few hours of digestion, your food then moves through the small intestine, where most of its nutrients are absorbed. After that, it carries on to the large intestine, finally making its grand exit. Although it’s a complicated process, digestion is designed to happen so seamlessly that we rarely notice how busily our bodies are working. Sometimes, however, things go wrong, bringing on uncomfortable abdominal pain. Here are a few reasons why your belly may be aching-from simple to serious:
1. Heartburn or acid indigestion
One of the most common digestive complaints, heartburn is described as a feeling of burning behind the sternum, with the discomfort often radiating upwards towards the mouth. It can also be described as a cramping, bloating, or a stabbing feeling. Heartburn happens when a sphincter (a muscle that is controlled by the nervous system) in the stomach doesn’t close properly, allowing stomach acid into the wrong areas of the intestinal tract. In many people, heartburn can be exacerbated by large meals, spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine. While taking an antacid may bring on relief, Adam Prinsen, a naturopath based in Peterborough, Ont., says suppressing stomach acid may not be the best long-term solution. “Stomachs produce acid for a reason: to digest the protein in your stomach,” he explains. “If you don’t have enough of it, you will compromise your digestion.” And that could make the problem worse. Because sphincters are affected by stress, Prinsen recommends calming your nerves as a first step. “Your digestive system won’t work properly when you’re stressed,” he explains, “because your body is in a fight-or-flight response-so all your blood goes to your muscles, rather than to your digestive system. Because people are always in a chronic state of stress, the digestive system eventually just shuts down.” That’s why the secret to easing heartburn may be as simple as slowing down.
2. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Though the causes of IBS are vague, it has become one of the most common lower bowel complaints, especially among women under 40. According to Dr. Robert Enns, a gastroenterologist and clinical professor of medicine at St. Paul’s Hospital at the University of British Columbia, IBS is associated with bowels that work too quickly or too slowly, or sometimes merely with discomfort. “Nobody really knows what causes it,” he says. While Enns explains that there is effective medication to treat IBS, he recommends patients modify their lifestyles first by managing stress and avoiding things like caffeine and foods that are high in saturated fat. Prinsen says it’s hard to prescribe a one-size-fits-all treatment for IBS because it is associated with so many symptoms. However, he often recommends testing for food sensitivities, which can set off a negative chain reaction in the body. He says that sometimes the problem can even be related to a functional liver problem, which may be the result of suppressing anger, frustration or resentment, or from consuming too much alcohol.