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Myth: Eating spicy foods causes stomach ulcers.
No one's immune from occasional upset stomachs, and nearly 40% of us will likely struggle with more serious digestive disorders like ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The good news is that doctors and scientists are constantly learning new things about the many complex diseases that affect our stomachs. So although tummy aches will continue to plague us, separating myth from fact about these nagging pains will shorten the time it takes to find relief.
Fact: While it's true that certain foods aggravate ulcers, they don't cause them. In up to 95% of cases, a gastrointestinal bacterium called Helicobacter pylori is to blame. One of every two people catch this bug by the time they're 60, though most never know it. (It's thought to be spread through person-to-person contact like kissing or consuming contaminated food or water.) Just 10% of people develop ulcers. Research shows you have a greater likelihood of being plagued by these stomach sores if you regularly take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). So if you need constant pain relief, consider switching to acetaminophen.
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Myth: Lifting something heavy will give you a hernia.
Fact: Less than 10% of inguinal hernias (by far the most common type) are caused by physically strenuous activity. The real culprit: weak abdominal walls that allow parts of your intestines to bulge outward when pressure's exerted on them. Blame genetics or previous surgeries for these weak spots. "Women who've had Cesarean sections, appendectomies, or similar surgeries are at higher risk because their abdominal muscles have been cut," says Richard Desi, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Mercy Medical Center's Institute for Digestive Health and Liver Disease in Baltimore. Chronic coughing, being overweight, and even straining during bowel movements can also lead to tears in the abdominal wall. Without surgery to fix the problem, the weakened area and the intestinal bulge will get bigger over time.
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Myth: Cut out beans to relieve gas.
Fact: Beans typically get blamed for causing gas, but the more likely culprit is dairy. Most of us consume a serving or two of cheese, yogurt, or milk a day, while few of us eat beans that often. If you start to feel bloated, crampy, or get diarrhea within 30 minutes to two hours of consuming dairy products, your body may no longer be making enough lactase enzyme to break down milk sugar, called lactose. The older you get, the more lactose-intolerant you may become. Thankfully, you don't have to ditch dairy: Try lactose-free milk or cheese, or take lactase supplements like Lactaid before consuming milk products.
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Myth: Fill up on fiber and drink more water to cure constipation.
Fact: A fiber-rich diet—one with at least 20 to 35 grams of fiber a day—keeps you regular. But if you're feeling constipated, an article published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology says that fiber actually worsens symptoms like bloating and stomach pains, while water provides little relief. "Water gets your bowels moving only when you're dehydrated," says C. Gregory Albers, M.D., medical director of diagnostic gastrointestinal services at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center's Comprehensive Digestive Diseases Center. The best course of action is to be sure you are getting plenty of regular exercise.
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Myth: Stomach acid is to blame for that burning sensation in your throat.
Fact: Not so, say researchers from the UT Southwestern Medical Center, who recently released a study that suggests gastroesophageal acid reflux disease (GERD) symptoms are actually caused by inflammatory immune cells. It's these rogue cells—not stomach acid—that lead to burning and chest pain.
"This might explain why half of GERD sufferers don't have erosive damage in their esophagus, despite a steady presence of stomach acid," says Dr. Albers. Acid blockers are still the best treatment option available for GERD symptoms.
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Myth: Only kids get celiac disease.
Fact: This condition, defined by the inability to tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, is most commonly diagnosed at around age 45. It may be easier to identify in children since they tend to have the more classic signs of celiac disease—chronic diarrhea, abdominal pain, irritability and failure to grow or thrive. Adults with celiac disease, on the other hand, are less likely to have stomach pains, and the symptoms they do experience (including fatigue, canker sores, and joint pain) are easily mistaken for those of other ailments.
Celiac is more common in individuals with type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid disease or a family history of celiac. You're also more likely to develop symptoms for the first time after certain life events like surgery, pregnancy, a viral infection, or a period of severe emotional stress. Don't ignore even the mildest of symptoms: Without dietary changes, celiac disease can damage the small intestine and lead to malnutrition, osteoporosis, iron-deficient anemia and even cancer.
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Myth: Stress causes IBS.
Fact: If your belly aches, you're bloated and you have bouts of constipation or diarrhea (or alternate between them), you may be among the 20% of Americans who have IBS. Women are twice as likely to suffer from IBS as men. And while this condition can flare up when you're stressed, experts have determined that tension isn't the root cause—they are still unsure about what exactly brings on the illness. That said, relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga may help relieve both stress and IBS symptoms.
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Myth: Nuts and foods with seeds can lead to diverticulitis.
Fact: About 10% of Americans over 40 (and more than half of those over 60) develop small pouches called diverticula that bulge outward from the lining of the colon or large intestine. Experts once thought that certain types of food particles—namely, indigestible ones from nuts, corn and seeds—plugged, irritated and inflamed these pouches, leading to severe abdominal cramping and a condition called diverticulitis. But a comprehensive study now suggests that eating nuts and popcorn twice a week actually lowers one's risk of diverticulitis by more than 20%. "If anything, a high-fiber diet featuring foods such as these helps prevent diverticular disease. There's no proven reason to avoid them," says Dr. Desi.
Rest, dietary changes and antibiotics can often treat diverticulitis, but in severe cases surgery may be needed.
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If your stomach pain is accompanied by any of these symptoms, see your doctor.
Vomiting for longer than 24 hours
Throwing up blood
Bloody or black, tarry stools
Pain following an abdominal injury
Unexplained weight loss
Difficulty swallowing or feeling like there's food caught in your chest or throat
Persistent chest discomfort
Headache and stiff neck
Signs of dehydration (dry mouth, sunken eyes, infrequent or dark yellow urine)
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.
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