December 01, 2011
Around the holidays, we definitely change our eating patterns – and by that, I mean we typically eat a lot more! It’s during this time that there are frequent trips to the emergency room and the doctor’s office with stomach complaints. How do you know if the pains and symptoms you are having are normal? After all, as we get older, digestion does slow down and problems can occur. To understand what is normal and what is not normal, let’s review the digestive process.
How the System Works
Do you remember the GI system from health class in high school? The teacher probably told you to think of the stomach as a food processor. That’s the basic gist. The digestive system is essentially one large tube that breaks down food. And it is a pretty long - over 30 feet if you stretched it out!
Digestion starts in our mouth; from there, food particles move down our esophagus into our stomach and then to the small intestine; they’re then off to the large intestine, and finally they are pushed out from our rectum. Along the way, organs such as the liver, the gallbladder, and the pancreas get into the act, helping with digestion.
Each organ plays a different role, so there’s potential breakdown in the process at every step. And truthfully, aging can cause some problems along the way. And eating a lot more during the holidays and different types of foods can make things worse!
Bad Eating Habits During the Holidays
We tend to eat more quickly at parties, not always chewing food properly because we’re talking and being social. Poorly chewed food can cause problems farther down – literally.
Remember that it is through contractions that food is propelled down into the stomach. Most people don’t realize that the esophagus is actually made of muscle. As we approach middle age and beyond, the muscles get weaker, the contractions are also not as powerful, and food moves more slowly through the esophagus. That can result in food particles getting stuck, especially if we’re eating a lot, eating quickly and trying new foods.
Getting Gassy After Meals
Have you been belching lately after all those holiday parties? It is caused by swallowing too much air. “Don’t we normally do that?” you may ask. Actually we don’t. Air is supposed to go down our windpipe not down our esophagus into the stomach. So belching is not normal, although it is not serious. We do it more often as we age because we might have dentures that don’t fit properly, or we may not chew our food as well as we should since we’re talking while eating. Some other causes include drinking carbonated beverages quickly – including that celebratory champagne!
Been getting gas after all those appetizers? What’s the cause? Gas is created through the breakdown of bacteria in our intestines and expelled through our rectum. Some bacteria release a gas when being digested. Don’t panic. It’s all normal.
Overeating and Constipation
We all get constipated, don’t we? It’s pretty common, affecting over 50 million people a year. And as we get older, it’s more common, and seems to be more noticeable around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
What do I mean by constipation? Seems like a simple question but is it?! After all, do we know how many bowel movements a day or week is normal? Actually, we do. Constipation is defined as having a bowel movement fewer than three times per week.
I must tell you – half of the people that tell me they are constipated actually are not! Some people think they are constipated if they do not have a bowel movement every day. However, you don’t need to make a daily bowel movement. The number of bowel movements you make is determined by how much you eat, what you eat, and how active you are. As long as you’re making a bowel movement three to four times a week, you’re fine. Constipation is almost always temporary. If constipation continues off/on for three months, it is definitely not normal.
When is Diarrhea Normal?
Now let’s move to the opposite of constipation - diarrhea. Diarrhea is loose, watery, and frequent stool. By definition, a person with diarrhea typically passes stool more than three times a day. Along with diarrhea, we often experience cramping and bloating and sometimes nausea.
Most diarrhea lasts only a couple of days. And getting an episode of diarrhea is normal – and it happens at every age. It’s usually caused by stomach flu or can be from food poisoning. Diarrhea is usually mild and goes away quickly without complications. If you are lactose intolerant and drink milk or eat cheese, you likely will get diarrhea – but you probably already know that! At holiday parties where you don’t prepare the food, it’s easy to eat something that doesn’t agree with you. There are some circumstances where diarrhea is dangerous and not considered normal such as blood in stools or intense chronic belly pain.
Worried about an Ulcer?
Concerned about an ulcer? Would you believe that a bacterial infection in our stomach actually can cause an ulcer? When it gets into the stomach, it helps to destroy the protective layer, thus causing an ulcer to develop.
How do you know if you might have an ulcer? Typically you have symptoms. Ulcers can cause gnawing, burning pain in the upper abdomen. These symptoms frequently occur several hours following a meal. The burning sensation can also occur during the night - many patients tell me they cannot sleep it’s so intense. Still others say they are always hungry or that food feels like it is getting stuck in their throat. Every now and then, someone notices black stools. None of these symptoms are normal. I see a lot more symptoms of ulcers during the holidays – some of it is stress-related and sometimes spicy food is causing the problem. Treatment of ulcers is pretty straightforward, so don’t delay in seeing the doctor.
Like the saying goes, the holidays are a time to “eat, drink, and be merry.” All that eating, drinking, and merriment can cause problems though, so learn what’s normal and what’s not when you start to experience some GI problems.
Got other symptoms you're concerned about? Check out Is This Normal? The Essential Guide to Aging and Beyond.
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