The Pitt Prescription | Self-care for common stomach issues

The Pitt Prescription is a biweekly blog where student pharmacist and senior staff writer Elizabeth Donnelly provides tips on how to stay healthy in college. This edition was reviewed by Karen S. Pater, PharmD., CDCES, BCACP.

By Elizabeth Donnelly, Senior Staff Writer

Gastrointestinal disorders are very common conditions experienced by almost everyone. These conditions affect the digestive tract, and some self-care-amenable ones include heartburn, nausea and vomiting.

Several factors may affect the GI tract and its ability to function properly, including diet, exercise, traveling, stress, medication use and pregnancy. There are several over-the-counter products and lifestyle modifications that can effectively treat many of these disorders.

Heartburn

Heartburn occurs when acid from your stomach backs up into your esophagus and causes a burning pain in your chest and a bitter or acidic taste in your mouth. These symptoms may be worsened with laying down, vigorous exercise or bending over. Certain foods are also significant risk factors for heartburn, including spicy foods, peppermint, chocolate, citrus and fatty/fried foods. Alcohol and soda are also considered risk factors and may trigger heartburn in certain people.

Heartburn is relatively common and not typically a cause for alarm unless it occurs frequently and your symptoms are severe, in which case you should see a doctor. You can treat general heartburn with lifestyle changes or OTC medications.

Self-care remedies for heartburn

The most common lifestyle recommendation for anyone suffering with heartburn is to maintain a healthy weight by eating well-balanced meals and exercising. Some physical activity, like intense or high-impact training, can worsen symptoms of acid reflux, so moderate to low-impact training is recommended. This includes walking, light jogging, yoga, swimming and bike riding. Consistent activity will help your overall health but also may reduce symptoms of heartburn.

Other recommendations include avoiding tightly fitted clothing or anything that puts pressure on your abdomen — where the lower esophageal sphincter is located — and staying away from risk foods that may trigger heartburn. You should try to avoid eating late at night and should wait at least three hours before laying down after a meal to give your body time to digest.

Since heartburn may be worse at night because you are laying down, you can also try to elevate the top half of your body when sleeping by positioning your mattress at an angle. Finally, both smoking and consuming alcohol can induce heartburn, so minimizing use or quitting is recommended.

If none of the lifestyle changes are helping, or if you need more instantaneous forms of relief, there are several OTC options at your disposal — antacids like Tums (calcium carbonate), H2-receptor-antagonists (H2-blockers) like Pepcid AC (famotidine) and proton pump inhibitors like Prilosec OTC (omeprazole magnesium). Antacids are typically used for quick relief once symptoms are present, H2-blockers are typically used on an as-needed basis for prevention or treatment of mild to moderate heartburn and PPIs are typically used on a scheduled daily basis for frequent heartburn. PPIs should not be used more than 14 days at a time unless instructed otherwise by a doctor. If you need more than 14 days worth of treatment, it may be a sign of a more serious condition, and you should see a medical professional.

Nausea 

Simple nausea can be attributed to many conditions, two of which are motion sickness and overindulgence. These, along with some others, may be aided by self-care techniques.

Motion sickness is much easier to prevent than it is to treat once it is occurring. It is typically caused by a mismatch between what you are seeing and the input your body receives when it experiences motion. It may cause dizziness, sweating, irritability and vomiting.

Overindulgence, or the excessive ingestion of foods and/or drinks, is also a cause of nausea/vomiting. This condition itself is typically not treated, but rather the symptoms that accompany it, like heartburn, indigestion and upset stomach.

Self-care remedies for nausea

The best treatment for motion sickness is preventing it from occurring. Several OTC products can prevent motion sickness — most notably, oral antihistamines. Oral antihistamines should be given 30 minutes to an hour prior to traveling and should be used every four to six hours for the duration of the trip. Two good options are Dramamine (dimenhydrinate) and Bonine (meclizine). These agents may cause drowsiness, sedation or blurred vision.

For overindulgence, treatment focuses on the symptoms that accompany it. The best way to prevent overindulgence is to limit your food and beverage intake. If you experience nausea due to overindulgence, the best thing to do is wait it out. However, there are some pharmacological options. Pepto Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate) acts as an antacid and can help with heartburn and indigestion symptoms. Emetrol (phosphorated carbohydrate solution) can also help with nausea related to overindulgence — however, it should be noted that this is not an oral rehydration product.

Vomiting

Vomiting occurs when your body is trying to expel something that it believes does not belong. In adults, vomiting is usually due to a viral infection or food poisoning, but can also be attributed to motion sickness and overindulgence of food or beverages like alcohol. Vomiting involves the involuntary or voluntary expulsion of your stomach contents up through your mouth. Typical vomiting is usually not serious, so the most common concern is the risk of dehydration.

Self-care remedies for vomiting 

If you are vomiting, then the best thing to do is to stay hydrated. Oral rehydration products, such as Pedialyte, work well to replace the water and electrolytes lost via vomiting. This is also important for vomiting after drinking alcohol. Replacing any water and electrolytes lost will likely help you start to feel better quicker. Additionally, Gatorade is typically not recommended for rehydration when sick, because it contains a lot of sugar that could upset your stomach and has fewer electrolytes than Pedialyte.

There is not much pharmacological therapy available for vomiting, and oftentimes it is better to just let it out so that your body can relax. Someone vomiting should drink clear liquids and avoid solid foods until the vomiting has passed. Additionally, resting and avoiding anything that irritates your stomach are good measures to take to start feeling better. Many health professionals recommend the BRAT diet, which contains easily digestible and tolerated foods. BRAT stands for bananas, rice, applesauce and toast, and these foods are good options for when you experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. It is only recommended to maintain the BRAT diet for a few days after an episode of vomiting or diarrhea and not long term, as these foods have very few nutrients.

GI conditions are relatively common, but if they persist for an extended period of time, it is always best to talk to your doctor about potential underlying issues. When taking any OTC medication or practicing self-care, it is important that you read the label and instructions to understand the best way to take each individual medication. If you need help figuring out what is best for you, feel free to ask your local pharmacist for advice because they would be happy to help you find the best treatment for your condition.

Elizabeth writes primarily about self-care and pharmacological topics. You can reach her at [email protected].

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