You know those relationships that are so rocky from the start, you don’t even know what the problem was in the first place? That’s like my stomach and me—temperamental and caustic from early on, but we find ways to make it work (mint tea is a great mediator) because we’re in it for the long haul.
Because my stomach’s so finicky with what I put in it, random aches and pains are nothing new to me. Almost everyone has experienced stomachaches at some point in their lives, but how many of us have tried to figure out their causes? They’ve been part of my life for so long that I never stopped to think about why that might be. There are actually several potential reasons why our stomachs hurt—it just takes a little detective work to pinpoint the correct one.
This is a fancier way to say that you have an upset stomach. That can include a number of symptoms—bloating, gas, nausea, upper abdominal pain, and a generally unhappy feeling in your gut. It’s caused by eating too much, eating too quickly, drinking alcohol, taking aspirin and certain medications, and so forth. Because it’s brought on by so many things, indigestion is the most common reason we get stomachaches.
People with celiac disease experience terrible stomachaches, diarrhea, and bloating when they ingest foods containing gluten, which includes anything made with grains like barley, wheat, or rye. This disorder also affects one’s ability to absorb nutrients in food, so those who have it lose weight, feel unusually tired, and develop anemia and osteoporosis as well. If you find yourself getting stomachaches after almost every meal, it’s possible a common ingredient—like wheat—is causing your troubles, so consider getting tested.
When we’re inundated with worry, it weakens our immune systems and causes physical sickness. It affects how we digest food and can produce more acid in our systems—hence the term “stomach-churning” when it comes to anxiety-ridden situations. Having a gut feeling about something isn’t just a colloquialism; our stomachs contain a great deal of nerves—almost as much as the brain itself—so they definitely know when something’s not right. For many people, stopping stomachaches means finding ways to keep stress from impacting their lives so severely.
Some types of bacteria and medication can cause these sores to develop on the stomach lining. The most frequent symptom of an ulcer is an intense burning pain in the abdominal area, but it can also make people vomit and affect their appetites. The pain often occurs after an acidic meal or on an empty stomach (because the stomach is pumping out more acidic juices to compensate). It used to be thought that eating too much spicy food or constantly being under stress brought about ulcers, but that turned out to be a myth. However, these things, along with cigarettes and alcohol, can make ulcer symptoms even more severe.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Also known as IBS, this disorder is extremely common—it affects about 25 percent of adults. It can cause increased bloating, constipation, cramping, and diarrhea. What triggers incidents of IBS isn’t known, but people who have it find that certain foods—chocolate, carbonated drinks, and cruciferous vegetables, for example—and stressful situations bring it on more regularly. Women below their mid-thirties are the most frequent sufferers of IBS.
There are quite a few things that can stop up our systems—dehydration, too little fiber, too much fiber (if you don’t drink enough water to compensate), stress, and a change in daily activities, like traveling or exercising, can all affect our bowel movements, or lack thereof. Infrequent activity in that region can lead to stomachaches, bloated bellies, and even vomiting.
Having a food intolerance means that the digestive system has problems breaking down a certain kind of food, leading to gas pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Many people experience some form of lactose intolerance, which is the inability to properly digest dairy products. Lactose intolerance occurs in people who are lacking or deficient in the enzyme lactase, which breaks down the milk sugar lactose. Most people with lactose intolerance are able to incorporate some dairy products in their diets, and sometimes hard cheeses and yogurt with naturally occurring bacteria are easier to digest than other milk products. Slowly adding in milk products can sometimes help people with intolerances have fewer symptoms.
Allergies and intolerances are often lumped into one category, but allergies are much less common and produce a different reaction in the body. Intolerances come about because the body’s not used to a certain food or has difficulty digesting it; allergies occur because the body sees the eaten entity as dangerous and releases antibodies as a result. These antibodies bring about stomachaches and digestive issues, not to mention hives, swelling, and rashes. Also, while some people have varying degrees of intolerance to foods (as in, some can eat a little and be fine), people with food allergies tend to have extreme reactions whether they consume a little or a lot.
Once we figure out why our stomachs hurt, it’s easier to stop the behavior that triggers it. Sometimes that means learning to deal with stress more healthfully or making better choices diet-wise, which are life changes we should embrace anyway. Unfortunately, it can also mean limiting or completely giving up the things we love, like eating cheese or wheat bread, or even overeating. You might think it’s too hard to make such sweeping changes in your life, but ask yourself whether it’s better to end a meal with satisfaction or stomach pain. It makes the choice—and the steps it takes to get there—seem all the more worthwhile.