Do You Need a Pill for Stomach Pain?
BY: Stacey Colino
Got stomach pains -- like heartburn, constipation or diarrhea? Sure, you’ve heard the speech about avoiding problem foods and modifying your lifestyle, but sometimes it isn’t enough. And sometimes lifestyle strategies can become so burdensome or restrictive that you can’t, well, enjoy your lifestyle anymore. But that doesn’t mean you have to suffer. There’s a time and place for everything, including medication. So when should you consider a pill when facing digestive distress?
“The severity and duration of your symptoms should determine when to use medication,” says Dr. Richard Desi, a gastroenterologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
An over-the-counter antacid will kick in quickly and provide short-term relief; it’s appropriate when occasional heartburn is severe enough to interfere with your daily activities, or doesn’t go away after a couple of hours, says Desi. The same is true if you get occasional acid indigestion after consuming a large meal or eating lots of fatty foods.
H2 blockers are also helpful for occasional bouts of heartburn. They can be taken as needed or before a large meal, notes Dr. Charlene Prather, a gastroenterologist and professor of internal medicine at Saint Louis University. “H2 blockers take 30 to 45 minutes to kick in,” she adds, “but the effects will last for up to 12 hours.”
For persistent heartburn, proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) may be warranted. “They won’t give immediate relief; they can take two to four days to reach maximum effectiveness,” says Prather. But once you’re on a regular regimen (usually a once-a-day dose), relief can be long-lasting. So “if you get heartburn two or more times a week, it may be worth taking a PPI every day,” she says.
When constipation drags you down, fiber supplements can help by providing bulk and food for intestinal bacteria, which will help move things along, says Prather. Taking fiber supplements (along with plenty of water) on a regular basis may also help minimize flare-ups of constipation related to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
If fiber doesn’t do the trick, Desi suggests a laxative that contains magnesium hydroxide, magnesium citrate or polyethylene glycol. It’s fine to take these occasionally because they are non-habit-forming, notes Desi. For urgent situations -- if you get seriously constipated while traveling, for example -- you might consider a stimulant laxative, such as those that contain senna, sennosides or bisacodyl. But “these can cause cramping and shouldn’t be used long-term because your intestines can become reliant on them,” warns Desi.
IBS is a two-sided coin, which can run slow (resulting in constipation) or fast (leading to diarrhea), or even alternate between the two. If you’ve got “the runs” due to IBS or from something you’ve eaten that seriously disagreed with your gut, it’s safe to take an over-the-counter antidiarrheal medication that contains loperamide, says Prather. The same is true if you sometimes get diarrhea when you’re nervous -- right before giving a presentation, for example.
But you shouldn’t take antidiarrheal drugs if you have a fever or bloody bowel movements, says Prather, because these may be signs of food poisoning or a gastrointestinal virus. In these instances, you are better off letting your body get rid of the offending organisms by allowing the illness to run its course naturally.
Quashing Abdominal Cramps
For abdominal cramps resulting from IBS, an antispasmodic medication can help. Talk to your doctor, as these are available only by prescription.
No one likes taking pills, and you should never take medication if you don’t need it. But even experts agree that lifestyle modifications aren’t always enough, and sometimes a pill is just what the doctor would order.
Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post's health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Woman's Day, SELF, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal. Stacey is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.
Recipe of the Week
- Greek yogurt has twice the protein of regular yogurt because it takes 3 to 4 times more milk to make it. Celebrate June Dairy Month with Greek yogurt topped with fresh berries.
- Bok Choy, also known as Chinese cabbage or pak choi, has been grown in China for over 6,000 years. Choose firm stalks, avoiding brown spots and wilted leaves, and add to stir-fry.
- Apple skin is full of fiber & Alzheimerâ€™s-disease-fighting antioxidants -- so eat it! Refrigerate in a plastic bag away from foods with strong odors; they absorb odors easily.
- Collards, mustard greens and kale are available in bags, pre-washed & chopped -- so theyâ€™re easy to steam or saute! Eat your greens as a side dish or in quesadillas, soups & stews.
- Avocados are rich in 20 nutrients and great beyond guacamole. Chop for a ham, egg and cheese wrap; slice for a deli roast beef sandwich; cube and toss into linguini and shrimp.
- Black-eyed Peas: Fresh, canned and frozen varieties are all nutrient-rich options -- making it easier to eat your daily veggies. Rinse and drain canned peas to cut down on salt.
- Ugli Fruit, beautiful benefits! Peel & eat for fiber & vitamin C. Choose fruit heavy for size; dents normal and color not important. Store on counter 5 days or refrigerate 2 weeks.
- Radicchio, also known as Italian chicory, is high in vitamin K for bone health. Great in salads: Choose bright, tender leaves; avoid brown or limp ones. Refrigerate up to 3 days.
- Cherimoya, a high-fiber tropical fruit, tastes like a mix of strawberry and mango. Choose firm, unblemished fruit, cut in wedges and spoon out creamy flesh.
- Kale in lentil soup is a double dose of New Yearâ€™s luck! Round-shaped lentils symbolize coins; kale, paper money. Both are packed with antioxidants for a year of healthy fortune.
- Tea is native to China, but Americans invented tea bags and first drank iced tea at the 1904 St. Louis Worldâ€™s Fair. Enjoy hot and reap health benefits from both black & green tea.
- Dried Plums (formerly prunes) may help prevent cancer and decrease inflammation. Slice fruit, stuff with cheese and walnuts, and wrap in prosciutto to make quick party appetizers.
- Oatmeal month is officially January. Cook breakfast oatmeal with 1% milk for extra protein, calcium and vitamin D -- or enjoy whole-grain oatmeal raisin cookies as a smart snack.
- Spices and herbs add antioxidants to every dish. One tsp. ground cinnamon contains as many antioxidants as 1/2 cup blueberries; 1 tsp. yellow curry as many as 1/2 cup red grapes.
- Fish, the best source of omega-3 fats for heart and brain health, may even help ward off depression. Mix canned white tuna, salmon and sardines for an omega-rich seafood salad.
- Orange juice is filled with immune-boosting nutrients that fight colds and the flu: vitamins C and B6, folate, potassium and magnesium. Choose 100% juice with no added sugar.
- Walnuts are a significant source of plant-based omega-3 fats. These fats -- also in ground flaxseed, canola oil and edamame -- provide many heart-healthy benefits.
- Pear, apple and Asian pear slices + yogurt-based dips = winning strategy for game-day parties. Combine Greek vanilla yogurt with chocolate-hazelnut spread for a fast, healthy dip.
- Pumpkin and sweet potato -- fresh, mashed or canned -- adds disease-fighting antioxidants to waffles and pancakes. Use whole-wheat flour to double your fiber and nutrient intake.
- Snack smart to achieve weight loss goals. Choose fast and fully edible fruits like grapes, apples, persimmon and kiwi. Yes, fuzzy kiwi skin is edible! Simply wash and rub dry.
What kind of water do you usually drink?