Solutions to Common Stomach Problems

From indigestion to cancer screening, your complete guide to a healthy, happy€—and toned—tummy.

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We may not like to bring it up at cocktail parties (or especially over dinner), but let's be honest: One of our number-one health concerns has to do with going number-two. Up to 70 million Americans deal with digestive problems like constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), according to the National Institutes of Health, and women tend to be way more likely than men to get gastrointestinal (GI) ailments. Two-thirds of IBS sufferers, for instance, are female, and we're also twice as likely as men to get constipated (oh, joy).

Why? "Women tend to be more sensitive to changes or movement in the abdomen," explains Health's Medical Editor Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. You don't have to resign yourself to a lifetime of tummy troubles, though. Read on to learn the cutting-edge treatments and little lifestyle changes that will keep gut issues from cramping your style.

Problem No. 1: Irritable bowel syndrome

The lowdown. The classic sign of IBS is abdominal pain that goes away after a bowel movement, or is linked to diarrhea or constipation. Women are especially prone: "They may have more bowel hypersensitivity, so nerves there overrespond to stimuli such as food or stress, causing increased gut activity," says Douglas Drossman, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

What it feels like. Ab discomfort that continues for at least three months, plus bloating, the urge to "go," a change in your stool's consistency, and/or mucus in your stool.

Rx. Your doctor can test to rule out other conditions, like a bacterial infection. Luckily, about half of cases improve with dietary tweaks. Start by cutting back on whole-grain breads and cereals, coffee, chocolate, and nuts—all can trigger symptoms. Probiotics may also help. If not, your doc might try antispasmodic drugs to control spasming in the colon, or antidepressants (surprise!) to reduce pain.

Problem No. 2: Heartburn

The lowdown. Heartburn's the result of stomach acid backing up into your esophagus (also known as acid reflux). What you eat—and drink!—plays a big role. Foods like tomato sauce and beverages like coffee relax your esophageal sphincter, which can allow acid to flow backward. Fatty fare is another culprit, because it lingers in your stomach. Smoking, stress, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain relievers like ibuprofen can bring on heartburn, too. Being overweight is also a risk factor, says Gina Sam, MD, director of the Mount Sinai GI Motility Center in New York City. "That's one reason we're starting to see more reflux—the obesity crisis," she says.

What it feels like. Burning pain in your chest after eating or when lying down. If you've developed gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)—meaning you have heartburn three times a week or more—you may also have a dry cough.

Rx. Steer clear of trigger foods and drinks. Elevating the head of your bed with blocks and taking OTC proton pump inhibitors (like Prevacid 24HR or Prilosec OTC) to block acid production can help. (So can losing weight, if you need to.) If you find yourself popping heartburn meds more than once or twice a week for more than three months, see your doctor. The good news is most cases respond to prescription meds.

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Hallie Levine Sklar
Last Updated: February 05, 2013

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