From tummy bloating to constipation, we’ve got the answers to those common stomach issues you just can't pinpoint
- The symptoms: Your tummy feels hard and swollen and you might pass wind – there may even be some embarrassing gurgling sounds.
- The cause: A bloated belly is the result of wind building up in your gut and can have a number of causes, from IBS (see below) to food intolerances. But it’s common for certain foods and drinks to produce excess wind.
- The treatment: Bloating should pass as the wind works its way out, but if you need a flat tummy fast, you could ask your pharmacist for an over-the-counter medicine to help the gas disperse.
- The prevention: Try reducing some of the common culprits. Causes of bloating can include fizzy drinks and certain foods – including beans, cabbage and broccoli – notorious for producing lots of gas.
- The symptoms: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can cause constipation, diarrhoea or a mix of both, along with bloating and tummy cramps.
- The cause: “We think that in people with IBS, the gut is over-sensitive – so its normal processes that cause all the symptoms,” says Professor Peter Whorwell.
- The treatment: Your GP can prescribe medication to treat symptoms, such as anti-spasmodics, laxatives and anti-diarrhoeals.
- The prevention: “Cutting out cereal fibre eases symptoms in about two-thirds of people, by between 30 and 40 per cent,” says Peter. This means avoiding whole grains and ‘brown’ versions of foods like bread, and instead going for the more processed ‘white’ versions. Probiotics may help – try Optibac for Every Day Extra Strength (£22.49/30 caps) – and take gentle exercise to ease stress.
- The symptoms: Constipation can mean you don’t move your bowels at all for a few days – and/or, when you do, stools are very small and hard, and you strain to pass them.
- The cause: “Your gut function slows down as you get older, making you more prone to constipation – due to a combination of less activity and reduced fluid and fibre intake – and can also be a side effect of certain medicines you might be taking,” says health expert Jo Waters.
- The treatment: You may need laxatives temporarily, or even in the longer term. “If you have a sluggish gut, there’s no problem with taking laxatives over a longer period of time but speak to your GP first,” says Peter.
- The prevention: Increase the soluble fibre in your diet – fresh and dried fruit, vegetables and oats are all good for getting your gut moving. And try to fit in a daily walk.
- The symptoms: This happens when strong acid from your stomach swills up into your oesophagus. If it happens a lot, it becomes gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, or GORD. “Over time, the acid coming back up into your gullet can cause inflammation, and in the most serious cases that can lead to oesophageal cancer,” says Peter. So see your doctor if you’ve had reflux for a long time.
- The cause: Pressure on your abdomen can be a cause, so it’s more common if you’re overweight, although IBS-related bloating can create similar pressure. Smoking makes acid reflux worse, but in some people there’s no clear cause.
- The treatment: Over-the-counter antacids can ease symptoms. Proton pump inhibitors, which you can get from your GP, reduce the amount of acid in your stomach.
- The prevention: Shift weight if you need to. “Symptoms are often worse at night so try putting four-inch blocks under the legs at the top of your bed, so the bed is tilted, it’s a simple way of making a difference,” says Peter.
- The symptoms: “Indigestion is that uncomfortable feeling in the upper abdomen or lower part of the chest – usually after eating or drinking,” says Jo.
- The cause: “Most people associate indigestion with a big meal, sometimes with a high fat or spice content,” says Jo. But for some people, there are individual triggers like citrus fruits, cucumber or tomatoes.
- The treatment: You can try over-the-counter indigestion remedies for fast relief, or a teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate in warm water for similar effects.
- The prevention: Try to identify and avoid any trigger foods. “Eating too fast or too close to bedtime can also be causes, so take your time eating,” says Jo. “Also, avoid too much alcohol and caffeine.”
IBS or coeliac disease?
NICE guidelines state that GPs must rule out coeliac disease – an autoimmune disease that causes your gut to react severely to gluten – before they diagnose IBS. It’s very important for people with coeliac disease to completely avoid gluten, which causes serious inflammation in the gut and affects absorption of nutrients. The symptoms can be very similar to IBS, so a blood test and biopsy is the only way to get a proper diagnosis.
If you have any of these signs you need an urgent GP appointment:
- You’ve suddenly developed IBS-type symptoms over the age of 50.
- Bloating is persistent. When it’s caused by IBS or food intolerances, bloating comes and goes. If it’s there all the time, this could – rarely – be a sign of ovarian cancer.
- You have any sudden changes – for example, you’re going to the loo a lot more, or you’ve developed reflux when you never had it previously.
- You have any bleeding from your bottom. It’s most likely to be caused by piles or straining, but always check it out.
- For more health advice pick up the latest copy of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday
Words by Charlotte Haigh