An upset stomach is one of the most common health complaints. You can have pain or general discomfort when the mucosal cells in the lining of your stomach become irritated or inflamed. Common symptoms include:
- Feeling uncomfortably full.
- Overall discomfort.
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Determine the Cause of Your Upset Stomach
If you have an upset stomach, you may wonder what caused it. Was it the pizza you ate last night or the new medication you’ve started?
Did you catch a stomach bug? Are you getting your period?
Sometimes, you can’t pinpoint the exact cause of an upset stomach. Fortunately, most of its common causes for an upset stomach aren’t serious and respond to home treatment. Symptoms normally resolve within a few hours to a couple of days, and there are many ways to manage them until they go away.
One of the most common reasons for an upset stomach is food poisoning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people in the U.S. contract a foodborne illness each year.
Of these, only a small percentage (roughly 128,000) end up in the hospital. However, this isn’t something to take lightly when you consider that nearly 3,000 persons die from a foodborne illness every year.
Most people with food poisoning can manage symptoms at home with rest, sufficient fluid intake, and over-the-counter medications.
However, you should contact your doctor immediately if you experience any of the following:
- Diarrhea plus a fever greater than 102 F (38.9 C).
- Diarrhea for more than three days without signs of improvement.
- Blood in your diarrhea.
- Inability to keep liquids down.
- Dehydration. Signs of dehydration include a dry throat and mouth, dizziness when you stand up, and very little urine output.
Constipation is another common cause of an upset stomach. About 16% of adults in the U.S. experience constipation — including 33% of adults over 60.
“Constipation is defined as needing to strain when trying to have a bowel movement and is often accompanied by bulky, hard stools. This along with slow transit through the gut can generally make one feel bloated and uncomfortable, “says Jennifer Mall, MD, MPH, of Steel City Internal Medicine-UPMC.
Causes of constipation can include:
- Certain blood pressure or allergy medications
- Certain vitamins like calcium or iron
- Eating chocolate
- Eating too much dairy
- Overuse of laxatives
- Taking opioids and painkillers
Tips for relieving constipation at home
In many cases, you can treat constipation at home. Here are some tips you can try:
- Eat more high-fiber foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans.
- Exercise regularly. Even lighter exercise can help keep you regular. Try to find time most days for gentle movement like walking, swimming, yoga, or whatever else you enjoy. “These activities can help promote food to move through your ‘GI’ tract,” says Dr. Mall.
- Make sure you’re consuming enough fluids from food and water. Dehydration can make your stools harder — and therefore harder to pass. If your urine is dark yellow or you feel thirsty, up your daily fluid intake.
Talking to your doctor about constipation
If the above tips fail to relieve your constipation, talk to your doctor. They can help you figure out whether any supplement, over-the-counter medication, or prescription drug you’re taking is to blame. For example, certain prescription painkillers and supplements containing iron can promote constipation.
Your doctor can help you figure out different options if the supplements or medication you’re taking are making you constipated. They can also recommend over-the-counter or prescription medications to help you move your bowels more regularly and without the need to strain.
Your doctor can also assess if any underlying medical conditions are contributing to your constipation.
Other causes of an upset stomach
Beyond constipation and food poisoning, there are hosts of other things that can cause an upset stomach, such as:
- Gastritis, which is a gradual wearing away of the stomach lining that can leave you vulnerable to bleeding or ulcers. Gastritis is either an acute or a chronic condition.
- Gastroenteritis, which is stomach lining inflammation caused by either bacteria or a viral infection. Vomiting and diarrhea usually accompany gastroenteritis.
- Generalized anxiety disorder. Upset stomach is one of the common symptoms associated with generalized anxiety disorder.
- Indigestion, which is the pain or discomfort associated with digesting food.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a health condition that affects the lower gastrointestinal tract. IBS often involves constipation and diarrhea. Stress, anxiety, and depression can all cause IBS.
- Menstrual cramps. A high percentage of women experience an upset stomach along with their menstrual cramps.
- Peptic ulcer, which is a lesion in the stomach lining caused by pepsin and stomach acid. The infection normally results from a type of bacteria called H. pylori.
How to Relieve an Upset Stomach
Many people are quick to turn to medications to try to relieve their upset stomachs. But there are plenty of natural upset stomach cures worth trying.
One option is to hold a warm water bottle or heating pack to the affected area of your abdomen. This helps relax and loosen your stomach muscles when they’re cramping. It works best if you lie down and place the pack directly on your stomach.
You can repeat this every 15 minutes or so. If that doesn’t work, you may want to turn to foods or drinks to help ease your discomfort.
Try the BRAT diet
You can often treat upset stomach with foods you likely already have at home. One common approach is the BRAT diet.
The BRAT diet is a good strategy to help you eat when you’re experiencing nausea, diarrhea, or an upset stomach. It’s also helpful when you’re recovering from food poisoning.
The diet relies on four main foods to help soothe your stomach and are easy to digest. These four foods are:
- Bananas. Bananas are rich in potassium, which can prove helpful if you’re vomiting or experiencing diarrhea and have become dehydrated. They have sugar but not enough to make you feel nauseous.
- Rice. Rice and similar starchy foods work to coat the lining of the stomach, which ultimately has a soothing effect. It also helps to move digestion along and doesn’t linger in the stomach long enough to initiate acid reflux.
- Applesauce. Applesauce is useful for soothing an uneasy stomach because it’s easy to digest and can help curb diarrhea. If you feel constipated, eat the skin or the apple peelings.
- Toast. Toast is bland and won’t linger in your stomach for very long. Make sure to leave off the butter and jam. Those ingredients aren’t bland and will likely cause further discomfort.
Other foods that are easy on the stomach
Although the BRAT diet is an effective way to soothe an upset stomach, certain other foods are also easy to digest. As a rule of thumb, keep it simple. Possible foods include:
- Avocado, which is high in potassium, fiber, and healthy oils.
- Cinnamon, which can also help with morning sickness and diarrhea.
- Crackers, the digestive function of which is similar to that of rice.
- Fennel, half a teaspoon of which can work wonders.
- Oat bran, a source of both soluble and insoluble fiber.
- Soup broth that doesn’t contain fat.
- Yogurt, though this isn’t an ideal option for people with lactose intolerance.
Try natural drinks to soothe an upset stomach
Although foods can help soothe your upset stomach, sometimes, you might not feel like eating. If that’s the case, a number of liquids can help just as much as other upset stomach remedies. And if you have any vomiting or diarrhea, they can help prevent dehydration too.
“Make sure to take small sips at first and gradually increase to larger sips as tolerated to not overwhelm your upset stomach,” says Dr. Mall.
Here are five drinks you can try:
- Chamomile tea. Chamomile acts as an anti-inflammatory to help relieve the discomfort associated with an upset stomach. This is especially the case if the stomach has become inflamed. Chamomile also helps to relax the muscles located in the upper digestive tract, which can soothe pain from stomach cramping and spasms. To prepare a cup of chamomile tea, steep one tea bag — or 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried chamomile leaves — in a cup of hot water.
- Water left over after making a pot of rice. Leftover water from rice has demulcent properties. This means the water can relieve inflammation. If you find the tea is too bitter, consider adding some honey.
- Mint tea. Peppermint tea can also help relieve pain associated with gas or bloating and helps to relax the stomach muscles. But if you’re experiencing heartburn, you may want to avoid peppermint. It can cause stomach acid to retreat into the esophagus, which exacerbates heartburn.
- Warm lemon water. Adding fresh lemon juice to a warm glass of water can help naturally heal an upset stomach. That’s because the extra acidity can help your body digest any lingering food. Just don’t go overboard with lemon because its acidity levels could exacerbate your upset stomach.
- Ginger root tea. Ginger is an anti-inflammatory that can also help increase digestive juice. Ginger also contains gingerols, which are an antioxidant that can lower free radicals and reduce pain.
Know the Signs of Something Dangerous
If upset stomach symptoms persist for too long, seek emergency medical attention. If you experience any of the following symptoms along with your upset stomach, seek emergency care:
- Difficulty breathing or chest pain while breathing.
- Feeling as though you might faint or feeling persistently lightheaded.
- Fever higher than 104 F (40 C) or fever lasting more than five days.
- An inability to eat or drink anything without vomiting lasting for more than one day.
- Not passing any urine for 12 hours.
- Passing a dark or black stool.
- Vomiting blood.
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