Although generally hardy, your stomach can be the source of many uncomfortable symptoms, including heartburn, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain or burning, some of which are potentially serious.
Think of your stomach as a holding tank. Everything you eat or drink arrives there via the esophagus after you swallow it. Small amounts of a few foods, such as alcohol, simple sugars and some medications, actually are absorbed in the stomach, but most foods are digested in the small intestine.
The stomach’s job is to break food into smaller pieces, which it does in two ways. The walls of the stomach are lined with powerful muscles that contract and cause food to churn, which breaks it down. The stomach also secretes gastric juices that begin to break down proteins. The partially processed food, called chyme, is forced into the small intestine, where most nutrients are harvested.
The rest of this article describes the most common stomach ailments, their symptoms and treatments:
Gastritis is an inflammation (swelling) of the lining of the stomach, which may be caused by infection, injury or irritation. Acid-induced damage to the stomach lining can cause gastritis, as can smoking, heavy alcohol consumption and certain medications (such as aspirin).
Nearly every woman will experience gastritis during her lifetime. Symptoms of gastritis include upper-abdominal discomfort, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. In most cases, symptoms are mild, pass quickly and have no long-term effects. Antacids usually ease symptoms.
Indigestion, also called dyspepsia, isn’t a disease but rather a word used to describe a variety of abdominal symptoms, including heartburn (see below), nausea and sensations of bloating and fullness. Some people experience indigestion only when they eat certain foods or when they overeat at a meal. Others have symptoms daily. Quitting smoking and avoiding alcoholic drinks can reduce the incidence of indigestion. Over-the-counter medications may be used to relieve symptoms when they occur. Patients who have frequent indigestion may be tested to find out whether a serious disease, such as peptic ulcer, gastritis, gastric cancer or gallbladder disease, is responsible for their discomfort.
Heartburn is the term used to describe a burning sensation in the chest accompanied by regurgitation of sour or bitter-tasting material into the throat and mouth. Normally, a valve called the esophageal sphincter keeps food from refluxing (moving back up) into the esophagus once it has entered the stomach. In some people, however, this valve becomes slack and allows some contents of the stomach, which are now acidic because digestion has begun, to travel back up into the esophagus. The acidity of the refluxed material irritates the esophagus and causes the discomfort associated with heartburn.
Liquid antacids can reduce symptoms of heartburn for most people, and some simple habit changes can help them avoid heartburn altogether. If lifestyle changes don’t bring relief, your healthcare provider might prescribe a medication that blocks acid production in the stomach or one that increases the strength of the esophageal sphincter. For heartburn sufferers who continue to have symptoms despite medication and lifestyle changes, surgery is an option.
Many people put up with gastric complaints not realizing they can take steps to make life easier on their stomachs. Treat yours with consideration and you’ll be far less likely to experience the annoying and uncomfortable symptoms that come with gastritis, indigestion and heartburn.