Is it really just nervous stomach?

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Intestinal health issues may not be fun to talk about, but they can have a major impact on quality of life


  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome is the most commonly diagnosed gastrointestinal condition.

Let’s face it, running to the bathroom because of your “nervous stomach” can be very embarrassing, not to mention inconvenient. Whether you are giving a presentation at the office, or trying to navigate the crowded New York subway system, daily stress levels may unfortunately play a role in dictating your bathroom needs.

While it may be an uncomfortable topic to discuss, the staff at the Susan and Leonard Feinstein IBD Clinical Center has heard it all. We treat thousands of patients a year and know that a so-called “nervous stomach,” with symptoms such as bloating, gas, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea and/or constipation, can be a sign of a more serious, but treatable, gastrointestinal disorder.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is the most commonly diagnosed gastrointestinal condition and affects more than 35 million Americans. It is a chronic disorder of gut-brain interaction, defined by recurrent abdominal pain and altered bowel habits.

Other gastrointestinal disorders include Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, gastroenteritis and more. Diagnostic tests, including blood tests, radiological imaging or an endoscopy with biopsy, can help identify whether your digestive disorder may be structural, motility-related or gut-brain in nature.

Once the cause of your distress has been diagnosed, an integrated approach to your treatment plan — not simply a prescription — can help to empower you and get you back to being the high-functioning New Yorker that you want to be. Comprehensive care should include nutrition, mental health services and social/care coordination.

If you are suffering with gastrointestinal issues, you should seek an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. In the meantime, here are some nutrition-focused strategies that may help. Please note that every person is different, and these items may not apply to you. For individualized recommendations, please see a registered dietitian who specializes in gastrointestinal disorders.

Think Mediterranean. There’s a reason the Mediterranean Diet is repeatedly voted as the best diet on countless lists year after year. Its focus on whole, unprocessed foods, with an emphasis on plant-based items, healthy fats and lean proteins, makes it beneficial not only for digestive health, but overall health too.

Cut back on caffeine. Caffeine may act as a stimulant on the bowels, by promoting the release of a hormone which increases motor activity and emptying time in the colon. This can lead to diarrhea and abdominal discomfort. Products containing caffeine include coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks and chocolate.

Avoid known triggers. This seems obvious enough, but some people find it hard to resist certain foods they know to bother their stomach. If you absolutely must indulge, try to limit yourself to having a small amount alongside foods you tolerate, and consume it at home, if possible.

Limit alcohol. Alcohol can irritate the lining of the GI tract and exacerbate your symptoms. Stick to a maximum of one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men as tolerated, and stay well-hydrated with water. If you are taking antibiotics or other medications, check for potential interactions with alcohol before drinking, even in moderation.

Slow down! We live in a fast-paced world and our mealtimes are often secondary to the many other things we have to do. Practice mindful eating by taking the time to sit down for a meal without distractions, chew slowly and enjoy your food. Your digestion will thank you for it.

For additional tips related to nutrition and more, follow us on Instagram at @mountsinai_ibdcenter.

Jessica Gelman, MS, RDN, CDN, Senior Clinical Dietitian, Division of Gastroenterology, The Susan and Leonard Feinstein Inflammatory Bowel Disease Clinical Center at The Mount Sinai Hospital

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