by Jari Love
It’s pretty much impossible to dodge the occasional upset stomach, diarrhea, or constipation. Tummy trouble is just a part of life. Fortunately, a cranky belly tends to feel better quickly if you keep hydrated and stick to easy-to-digest foods.
But for people with “functional bowel disorders”—doctor-speak for conditions that cause chronic stomach pain and other digestive problems—a stomachache isn’t just an every-now-and-then thing; it’s a debilitating ailment. The most common bowel disorder is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which affects roughly one in 10 Americans, according to H. Christian Weber, MD, a gastroenterologist at Boston Medical Center. For the millions of people with IBS, letting stomach pain run its course isn’t an option.
Fortunately, there are several drug-free methods proven to calm an angry gut.
1. Ditch these foods.
Whole wheat, honey, beans, and even garlic can cause trouble—or not. The tricky thing about bowel disorders is that everyone’s gut is different, so what irritates one person’s gastrointestinal tract may be harmless for someone else’s. That said, something called “the low FODMAP diet” should work for just about anyone, Weber says. FODMAP is short for “fermentable oligo-di-monosaccharides and polyols” (say that three times fast), and it targets natural sugars that pull water into the intestines and make digestion difficult.
There’s a long list of foods forbidden for people on a low FODMAP diet, including watermelon, lentils, and chickpeas. But passing on hummus is a no-brainer compared to suffering through chronic stomachaches or diarrhea. Also, you may only have to give up your favorites for a few weeks, says Stephanie Moleski, MD, a gastroenterologist at Thomas Jefferson University. After a 2- to 6-week “elimination phase,” during which you ditch every FODMAP food possible, you can reintroduce items one at a time until you’ve identified your triggers.
2. Get off the couch.
Exercise is a potent remedy for everything from depression to Alzheimer’s disease. A workout can also quell the discomfort associated with digestive disorders, research suggests. “Endorphins are painkillers,” Weber says. And exercising releases them while upping the amount of oxygen circulating in your body, which makes you feel better—albeit temporarily. Weber says exercise doesn’t really address the underlying causes of your angry gut. Still, if you’re looking for natural relief, a little sweat is a great way to sidestep ibuprofen. Research isn’t clear about whether aerobic exercise is better than strength training, so Weber suggests you try both and stick with whatever type makes you feel best.
3. Assess your stress.
A big interview, public speaking, or other stressful activities can launch stomach cramps, feelings of nausea, and gas. Some experts attribute this to something called the brain-gut axis. Basically, your brain and your gut talk to each other. When one’s upset, the other may feel junky, too. (Some research suggests those with bowel disorders like IBS also tend to feel depressed or anxious.)
As a result of this brain-gut connection, stress can be a big trigger for people with chronic stomach problems, Moleski explains. “When you’re having a lot of stress, it’s going to wreak havoc in the intestines,” she says.
There are several quick ways to slash stress. Finding a method that works for you may make your gut happier in the long run. In one study, people with bowel disorders spent 15 to 20 minutes a day fighting stress with yoga, meditation, or prayer. After 9 weeks, they reported less pain, lower anxiety, and better quality of life.
4. Grab some peppermint.
Although he doesn’t usually recommend supplements, Weber says anyone looking for a natural way to ease stomach pain could try peppermint oil, which studies show can calm symptoms of IBS. But Weber cautions against picking up peppermint supplements at your nearest health store. They’re only lightly regulated by the FDA, and are often loaded with unnecessary additives that could do more harm than good. He advises talking with your doctor before trying a supplement.
Jari Love – original creator of Get RIPPED! DVD series and group exercise classes. The hot-selling and critically acclaimed Get RIPPED! series enables individuals of any fitness level to burn up to three times more calories than the traditional weight-training program, and has received rave reviews from fitness critics throughout North America since the first title debuted in late 2005.