Abdominal Discomfort

Flatulence, dyspepsia and heartburn symptoms in abdominal discomfort are common. Although they may be suggestive of organic disease, many people have been investigated fully and no disorder can be discovered. On the other hand, the symptoms must never be ignored, especially in older people. They may be an early sign of internal disease.

Flatulence is often due to excessive swallowing of air. About 600 ml (one pint) of air is swallowed each day, and excessive swallowing (often during eating, drinking, talking) allows a certain amount to enter the stomach through the cardiac valve at the far end of the oesophagus. Some of the air will remain in the stomach, and a certain amount will pass on. Swallowed air may reach the colon (large bowel) in about 30 – 60 minutes.

Air will not be absorbed. It must be discharged, either via the route whereby it entered the stomach (by an eructation – a “burp”), or as flaws via the anus. Vague discomfort, as air distends the stomach or intestine, may occur. Pockets may be temporarily trapped in certain areas. The large bowel contains certain points where it turns (flexures) and these are potential places where air may become trapped.

Rapid bacterial deterioration of the bowel contents may produce gas that is added to the air and this may also cause discomfort.

Many people voluntarily swallow air, believing this will enable them to give a hearty “burp” and so rid the stomach of all the gaseous contents. But this often does not result, and it may make the person feel much worse and even more bloated and distended.

Some foods, such as leafy greens, lentils, beans and onions may predispose to flatulence. Greasy foods may have a similar effect in some. Some people claim they have food intolerance, and may produce a long list of foods they say make them “ill.” Actually, such true intolerance is quite rare, and often there is a strong psychogenic overlay to such claims.

The exception is probably the overuse of refined sugars, which are notorious for producing gastrointestinal symptoms, and the overuse of refined flour. A reduction in the use of these items will often produce beneficial results, as current research is indicating.

The indiscriminate use of spicy fare and well-known stomach irritants may produce a general feeling of distension, bloating, fullness, heartburn and general abdominal discomfort.

Alcohol indulgence, smoking, overuse of condiments, strong tea and coffee are all well known for their ability to irritate the lining of the stomach and duodenum.

Abdominal Discomfort Treatment

If there is any recurring abdominal discomfort, such as flatulence, dyspepsia, heartburn (particularly in older persons aged 40 or more), then a proper medical check is advisable. In some cases this will be due to organic causes and, if so, the quicker the diagnosis is made and treatment instituted the better.

However, if findings are negative, then a reappraisal of the eating habits is recommended. Cease eating the known troublemakers. If certain foods definitely appear to aggravate, then leave these alone, at least for trial periods. Cease the air-swallowing habit. Reduce refined flour and sugar intake. Eat more roughage each day (particularly unprocessed bran), fresh fruit and vegetables. The results will soon be pleasing, but it may take several weeks for this to manifest itself. Drink less aerated beverages and, especially, alcohol with meals.