A healthy stomach is essential for the process of digestion and absorption which ensures that the body receives sufficient nutrition to maintain life, grow, develop and function at its peak. The stomach does not work in isolation but is part of the digestive tract. The esophagus carries food from the throat which is swallowed to the stomach and the intestines which lie after the stomach complete the processes of digestion and absorption.
However, if the stomach is unhealthy in some way then digestion and absorption is disturbed to some degree. In addition, there are several signs and symptoms of stomach problems which can be uncomfortable, affect appetite and may even impact daily activities and sleep to varying degrees. Therefore a healthy stomach is as important as health of any other organ in the body.
Read more on stomach problems.
Causes of an Unhealthy Stomach
An unhealthy stomach is a general term to describe diseases and disorders affecting the stomach. It indicates a problem with stomach function, an abnormality in stomach anatomy as well as signs and symptoms that emanate from the stomach. There are a host of different types of stomach problems and most of these conditions present in a similar manner.
The cause of an unhealthy stomach depends on the underlying disease. Some of these diseases may include:
- Inflammation of the stomach = gastritis
- Open sores in the stomach wall = stomach ulcers (type of peptic ulcer)
- Squeezing of stomach into the chest cavity = hiatal hernia
- Weakening or paralysis of stomach muscles = gastroparesis
- Tear or hole in stomach wall = stomach perforation
- Protruding non-cancerous growths from stomach wall = stomach polyps
- Malignant growth in stomach = stomach cancer
Signs and Symptoms of Unhealthy Stomach
There are several signs and symptoms that are common to most causes of an unhealthy stomach. However, it can be difficult to differentiate stomach problems from other digestive tract problems solely on the signs and symptoms below. Therefore various diagnostic investigations are necessary to identify the exact digestive problem.
Read more on stomach tests.
Pain in the upper left abdomen
One of the characteristic symptoms of an unhealtht stomach is pain in the left upper quadrant (LUQ) of the stomach. This is where the stomach is located. It is tucked under the lower part of the left ribcage and extends to the middle of the upper abdomen. However, it is important to note that the stomach is surrounded by several other organs. Therefore pain alone in this area may not always be due to the stomach.
The stomach pain may vary in nature, intensity and duration. A burning or gnawing pain is one of the more typicaly types of stomach pain. Depending on the underlying condition, this pain may be present continuously or it may be intermittent. In terms of the latter, the pain may worsen when hungry, after meals or in the early parts of the morning when stomach acid secretion increases.
Abnormal sensation of fullness
Normally the stomach stretches when filled with food and this gives rise to a sensation of fullness. Stretch receptors in the stomach wall sends impulses to the brain which signals the body that turns off the hunger sensation. It ensures that a person does not overeat. However, in some stomach diseases the sensation is abnormally triggered.
A person may feel full after a few bites of a meal or a sensation of fullness may persist even without eating for a significant period of time. As with the pain, this fullness may be felt in the upper left region of the abdomen when the stomach is located. It is often accompanied by nausea and reflux with a person incorrectly thinking that they have overeaten.
Reflux and Regurgitation
Reflux, or specifically gastroesphopaheal reflux, is usually thought of as a problem with the esophagus (food pipe). The acidic stomach contents flows back into the esophagus which causes irritation of the esophagus and a burning sensation in the chest, which is referred to as heartburn. However, the problem may start in the stomach.
If the pressure in the stomach builds up then the stomach contents may force its way up through the LES (lower esophageal sphincter). Certain stomach diseases and disorders can also damage this sphincter which usually prevents backward flow. The stomach contents may rise up even as far as the mouth without the force associated with vomiting.
Nausea and vomiting
Nausea is another common symptom of an unhealthy stomach. Irritation and damage of the stomach wall sends signals to the brain which stimulates certain parts responsible for the sensation of nausea. If the stimulation is strong enough then it may also stimulate the vomit centers which initiate the process of vomiting. However, it is important to note that nausea does not always lead to vomiting.
The nausea may occur on its own or be accompanied by other signs and symptoms such as pain. Often it correlates with hunger, after eating and during peak stomach acid secretion which occurs in the early hours of the morning. Sometimes there may be the appearance of coffee grounds in the vomitus which is a sign of stomach bleeding. At other times there may be fresh red blood visible.
Loss of appetite or constant hunger
Changes in appetite is another common symptom of stomach problem but also occurs witha host of othr diseases and disorders that do not involve the stomach. The change may vary between a loss of appetite or even persistent hunger which is not entirely satisfied by eating. Over time this can lead to weight loss or weight gain, respectively.
Treatment of Unhealthy Stomach
There is no single treatment for all causes of an unhealthy stomach. The treatment options vary depending on the underlying cause. This usually involves a combination of dietary and lifestyle changes, medication and sometimes surgery as well. The drugs used for the treatment of the more common causes of unhealthy stomach such as gastritis and peptic ulcers, may include:
- Antacids to neutralize stomach acid.
- Acid-suppressing drugs, like proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) to reduce stomach acid production.
- Prokinetic agents to speed up gastric emptying.
- Antibiotics to eradicate Helicobacter pylori stomach infections.
Dietary and lifestyle management of an unhealthy stomach often includes the following measures:
- Identifying and avoiding trigger foods and beverages.
- Limiting the intake of alcoholic and caffeinated drinks.
- Stopping cigarette smoking and tobacco chewing.
- Eating a balanced diet while minimizing spicy foods.