Indigestion isn't an especially glamorous medical topic, but relieving this condition -- and keeping the whole gastrointestinal (GI) tract operating comfortably and efficiently -- is vital to overall well being. As French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau put it, "Happiness: a good bank account, a good cook and a good digestion."
Unfortunately, too many Americans are taking a dubious shortcut to digestive health: GI medication use has jumped dramatically in recent years. One in ten Americans was prescribed at least one GI medication on an outpatient basis in 2007 (the most recent year for which figures are available) compared to 1 in 15 in 1997. Such medications often do more harm than good -- masking imbalances that can lead to more serious conditions, and causing numerous side effects, including lower B12 levels, increased risk of fractures and even increased risk of infections.
So let's explore some natural, gentle means to keep the digestive tract on track.
Nearly everyone has an occasional bout of indigestion. Discomfort or burning in the upper abdomen is often associated with overeating. This kind of indigestion usually goes away without treatment. If you avoid foods that trigger your symptoms and unlearn unhealthy habits, such as eating too much or too quickly. The following self-help tips will both relieve and prevent indigestion:
- Don't eat too quickly.
- Eat smaller meals.
- Avoid late-night eating.
- Try to relax after meals.
- Avoid spicy foods if they contribute to your indigestion.
- Don't smoke.
- Avoid or minimize intake of coffee and alcoholic beverages.
- Keep a food diary to help identify items that trigger indigestion.
If these prove insufficient, spend more time considering the cause of your problem. Your digestive system mirrors your state of mind, which is why so many digestive disorders are stress-related. Pay attention to your emotions as well as your eating habits. Once you figure out exactly what's triggering your pain, you'll need to make lifestyle changes that may include relaxation exercises, yoga or meditation. Here are some other remedies you can try:
Drink peppermint tea, an excellent stomach soother if you've eaten too much. (However, it may worsen esophageal reflux by relaxing the sphincter where the esophagus joins the stomach. Chamomile tea is an alternative.)
Drink ginger tea, eat candied ginger or take a 500 mg capsule of ginger root extract.
Probiotics are products containing the helpful bacteria (usually Lactobacilli or Bifidobacteria) that normally inhabit the human digestive tract. Most of these "friendly" bacteria occur naturally in cultured milk products, such as yogurt with active cultures or acidophilus milk. Look for brands containing Bacillus coagulans (BC-30) or Lactobacillus GG in liquid or capsule form. The usual dose is based on number of colony forming units, or CFU, and is typically in the range of 10-20 billion CFU. Probiotics are also an effective treatment for viral and antibiotic-associated diarrhea in children, inflammatory bowel disease, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, vaginal yeast infections, food allergies, eczema and recurrent C. difficile infection.
Experiment with plant-derived digestive enzymes that can help you process foods.
Artichoke-leaf extract may help with indigestion by increasing bile flow needed to digest fats. Choose products that are standardized for caffeoylquinic acids and follow the package directions.
Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) is licorice devoid of glycyrrhizin, a compound that can raise blood pressure. It protects the lining of the stomach and esophagus from irritation by acid and is much safer than acid-suppressive drugs. Take two tablets chewed slowly 15 minutes before meals and at bedtime, or take one-half teaspoon of DGL powder at those times. Allow the extract to dissolve in the mouth and slowly trickle down the throat. You can take DGL as long as you have symptoms.
Finally, be aware that the common lower GI disorder known as "irritable bowel syndrome" or IBS is now being portrayed in pharmaceutical company advertisements as a disease requiring drug treatment. "What for many people is a mild functional disorder -- requiring little more than reassurance about its benign natural course -- is currently being reframed as a serious disease attracting a label and a drug, with all the associated harms and costs," concluded an article by Australian researchers titled, "Selling sickness: the pharmaceutical industry and disease mongering," published in the April, 2002, issue of the British Medical Journal.
IBS often resolves with lifestyle changes and mind/body interventions, but it is a real condition. If the diarrhea, stomach pain or other symptoms become chronic - meaning that they have persisted for more than four weeks, or if they have become steadily worse in character - consult with your primary health care provider.
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As for the good bank account and good cook, I wish you success in securing both!
Andrew Weil, M.D., is the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and the editorial director of www.DrWeil.com. Become a fan on Facebook, follow Dr. Weil on Twitter, and check out his Daily Health Tips Blog.