Getting butterflies in the stomach from a first date or an exciting work opportunity is a good thing, but experiencing sharp pains or chronic bloating in our bellies is definitely not fun. About 70 percent of our immune system resides in our gut, so keeping our gut healthy can really enhance our wellbeing and keep stress and mood imbalances at bay.
As a certified health coach, I work with clients on healing their guts and understanding their relationships to food, lifestyle habits and exercise. Discomfort on a daily basis is actually very common, and there are many types of food sensitivities and lifestyle behaviors that can attribute to poor health, fatigue, insecurities and decreased productivity. An unhappy stomach can certainly result in a less fulfilling life, as tummy troubles, pain and bloating can make us feel unlike ourselves and negatively affect our mental and physical wellbeing.
By discovering which issues may be contributing to stomach pains and choosing to eat, exercise and live in a way that promotes proper gut health, it's possible to feel healthy and happy from morning to night. Here are 12 things that can give us a stomach ache.
1. High Fiber Foods
High fiber foods are teeming with nutrients and can keep us regular with bowel movements; however, excess fiber can result in pain and bloating. "The best way to incorporate them into your diet is to work your way in," running coach and certified personal trainer Susie Lemmer tells Bustle. It's also a smart idea to avoid high-fiber foods immediately before working out, as that can lead to bowel problems or stomach cramps during a workout.
2. Raw Veggies
"Raw veggies can give us digestive pains," says Lemmer. Our bodies have a hard time breaking down the elements in raw veggies, so it might be easier to lightly cook them and avoid tummy troubles. Steaming, roasting, grilling, stir-frying, or sautéing vegetables with a bit of olive or coconut oil will ease digestion and keep the nutrients intact. Furthermore, coconut oil's properties promote a healthy gut.
3. Eating Too Fast
Consuming food too rapidly can hinder our body's ability to digest properly. "Think about the stomach like a muscle; you can't go from never working out to running a marathon all at once," says Lemmer. Flooding the stomach with too much food can cause discomfort and cause the stomach to stretch, resulting in bloating, gas and discomfort. Put the fork down every three minutes and focus on chewing and swallowing each bite.
4. Protein Bars
Protein bars can be filled with artificial sweeteners and additives. For example, "erythritol (sugar alcohol or polyol) hurts my belly," artist and yoga instructor Tracee Badway tells Bustle. Because she loves them, she recommends eating half at a time to allow the stomach to digest the substance easier and to still enjoy the taste. You can also search the labels at grocery stores for bars that do not contain any additives or make your own granola, nut and fruit protein mix at home.
5. Chewing Gum
Studies show that chewing gum can induce gas and bloating, as gum contains artificial sweeteners and brings air into the body with each chew. The influx of air expands the stomach, leading to bloating and abdominal discomfort. Dr. Kathleen Dass, MD, an allergist-immunologist at Allergy & Asthma PC, tells Bustle, “When you chew gum, you actually swallow a lot of air, which can lead to gas. This is only worsened by the fact that a lot of chewing gum contains artificial sweeteners that are also known to cause gas. Chewing gum is also something that is high in FODMAPs.” FODMAPs are short-chain carbohydrates that are often found in artificial sweeteners, and is a possible trigger for irritable bowel syndrome, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Research shows that gluten can cause stomach aches, as it is a common food sensitivity. Eliminate gluten for three weeks, and see how you feel. Gluten products have been shown to lead to abnormal bowel movements, diarrhea, and cramping. Not all bodies can digest the substance, and it is totally normal if you are one of the sufferers. “Celiac disease is found in 1% of the population though up to 20% of the population that has it may never be diagnosed!” Dass explains. “In Celiac disease, your body launches an immune response to any gluten exposure. This will lead to diarrhea, bloating, gas, and even skin rashes or neurological issues!” Sticking with gluten free grains, such as quinoa and buckwheat, as well as asking restaurants for gluten-free menus should help.
While Greek yogurt contains probiotics to improve digestion, other dairy products can irritate the stomach and cause abdominal pain. “Dairy contains lactose, which is a sugar that’s broken down in your body into energy by an enzyme called lactase,” Dass says. “If you are lacking lactase, dairy and milk products will cause significant gas, bloating, and diarrhea.” Those lacking lactase, also known as lactose intolerant, are unable to break down lactose, which can lead to diarrhea, gas and pain, and those who are sensitive may also have trouble digesting the enzyme. There are also many cow's milks that contain hormones, which can irritate our linings. Switch to alternative milks for healthier digestion.
8. Spicy Foods
While capsaicin found in spicy foods can rev metabolism and promote good health, it can cause diarrhea and stomach woes in many people. Dass says, “Spicy foods irritate the lining of your esophagus and stomach. This increases acid production in your stomach while simultaneously decreasing the pressure in the lower esophageal sphincter (a muscle that keeps food moving in the right direction at the end of the esophagus). For this reason, you will develop significant heartburn symptoms.” It may be a good idea to test yourself with mild spices to see how you feel. If you find yourself running to the bathroom, it might be best to avoid spicy foods and stick with fresh herbs for natural seasoning and flavor when cooking instead.
Foods that are in the nightshade family, such as artichokes, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, goji berries and peppers, can cause stomach discomfort and bowel problems. Plus, tomatoes are incredibly acidic. “Tomatoes and citrus foods also increase acid production in your stomach while simultaneously decreasing the pressure in the lower esophageal sphincter. The heartburn develops when the acid from the stomach touches the inner lining of the esophagus,” Dass says. It’s best to limit acidic and nightshade foods for optimal gut health.
10. Carbonated Drinks
Carbonated beverages can lead to stomach problems, as the bubbles can create air in our stomachs and lead to gas. Carbon dioxide can lead to bloating and pain. It's best to stick with flat drinks, such as water and fresh juice, if you're prone to stomach aches. Dr. Sara Gottfried, MD, a board-certified gynecologist and author, tells Bustle, “Specifically diet soda [does this]. Low-calorie sweeteners, often found in diet sodas, disrupt the delicate balance of gut microbiota. Furthermore, drinking out of a straw can let more air into our bodies, so if you are drinking a beverage, sip it from a glass, not a straw.
Experts say that high-fat foods can result in bowel problems, such as diarrhea or constipation. I don't know which is worse! “Butter is high in saturated fat. Foods that are high in saturated fat have been known to affect our gut microbiome,” Dass tells Bustle. “Scientists think this may be one of the reasons we are seeing an increase in Crohn’s [Disease] and ulcerative colitis.” To counteract this, use olive oil or coconut oil when cooking, instead of butter, creams, and condiments.
Because alcohol passes through the digestive tract quickly, it can cause stomach pains, nausea and abnormal bowel movements, such as diarrhea. Alcohol is low in nutrients and can cause inflammation in our guts, leading to discomfort and bloating. “Drinking alcohol can lead to inflammation and irritation in your stomach because it can erode the lining of your stomach,” Dass explains. “This is usually seen with heavy or ongoing alcohol use. If the lining of your stomach is weaker, then you will be more susceptible to the acid your stomach naturally produces, making you more susceptible to stomach aches and even ulcers.”
Being mindful of what and how you eat can really affect your digestion and overall mental and physical wellbeing. It's never fun to feel discomfort in your stomach, and fear of bowel woes and gas can cause major anxiety, as well. By being aware of what foods can cause gastrointestinal issues, you can put the worries to bed and go on living your life discomfort-free.
Additional reporting by Syeda Khaula Saad.
This article was originally published on April 3, 2018 and was updated on June 27, 2019.