Wed, 21 May 2003

Proper diet keeps indigestion in check

Melissa Southern-Garcia, Dietitian, Jakarta,

Acid reflux, dyspepsia, indigestion or an acid stomach are all bothersome conditions that affect thousands of individuals and have a variety of causes and cures.

In many instances, indigestion is not a medical condition but rather a symptom -- the body's way of signaling there is a problem. It is important to consult your doctor if indigestion is a recurring problem that affects your daily life or something that occurs more than twice a week on a regular basis.

Indigestion often can be due to a wide variety of medical conditions, including ulcers, gastroparesis, inflammatory bowel disease or even hormonal changes due to pregnancy. For those who only suffer occasional bouts of indigestion, and even for those who are being treated for a medical condition related to indigestion, simple diet and lifestyle changes can be an important part of eliminating the pain and discomfort that often go hand in hand with indigestion or acid reflux.

The first step in avoiding indigestion is to plan the timing of your meals. Plan five or six small, frequent meals instead of three large ones. A large, heavy meal takes more time to digest and is more likely to cause discomfort. In particular, avoid heavy meals at night since lying down with a full stomach is thought to aggravate symptoms of indigestion by causing acidic stomach contents to back up in the esophagus.

When planning a meal, watch what you eat. Avoid eating foods that are high in fat, since fat takes longer to digest. Also try to avoid eating large quantities of gas-producing food -- such as cabbage or cauliflower -- or food that is too spicy since either of these may provoke discomfort as well.

Certain foods are thought to trigger acid production and worsen symptoms of indigestion. These include chocolate, mint, onions and tomatoes. Other foods have been reported to worsen symptoms in some individuals but not in others. These foods include: garlic, green peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, nuts, seeds and artificial sweeteners such as sorbitol.

If you suffer from indigestion try eliminating suspect foods from your diet and then slowly reintroduce them one at a time to see if any of these particular foods may be triggering your symptoms.

Many people find symptoms arise when drinking milk or eating ice cream. This condition, known as "lactose intolerance", is caused when the body is unable to produce the enzyme lactase which digests the lactose in milk, leading to gas, bloating and general symptoms of discomfort similar to indigestion. If milk triggers these symptoms, your doctor can prescribe drops or pills that contain lactase to help your body digest milk products. If you choose to avoid dairy products, remember to replace them with another good source of calcium such as green vegetables or tofu. Also, try dairy products that are lower in lactose and may cause less discomfort such as yogurt.

Other important lifestyle changes should also be kept in mind. Alcohol and smoking have been proven to specifically worsen acid reflux and other digestive problems. Chewing gum and sucking on candy cause air to be swallowed, leading to bloating or belching in people prone to reflux. Carbonated beverages introduce air into the stomach and may affect indigestion as well.

Losing weight and exercising are important components in reducing bouts of indigestion. Being overweight can cause pressure on the upper stomach and worsen symptoms. Exercising not only encourages weight loss but also helps reduce stress levels.

Stress has been attributed as a possible factor in acid indigestion and is often found to be the trigger for people who do not exhibit other lifestyle factors that lead to indigestion, such as obesity, drinking or smoking. Eating and chewing slowly as well as simply taking the time to relax while eating can be helpful.

Choosing a diet that includes fresh, low-fat foods, eating small frequent meals and avoiding trigger foods are the best way to ensure that the bothersome symptoms of indigestion and acid reflux are kept under control. Taking over-the-counter antacids may also be helpful in controlling acid or heartburn, but remember that if your problems persist the symptoms may be indicative that there is an underlying problem that needs to be discussed with your doctor.