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The digestive system is often taken for granted until we experience some distress. There are several degrees of discomfort from mild heartburn, up to excruciatingly painful ulcers and even esophageal or stomach cancers. Heartburn is the most minor and perhaps most easily treatable of the disorders. It is estimated that almost 15 million individuals suffer from heartburn daily, and about 60 million have it at least once a month. Heartburn has no age limits; sufferers range from infants to the elderly.

If heartburn becomes chronic it will usually be categorized as gastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly called “GERD.” GERD, in turn, if not dealt with properly can lead to other more serious ailments, such as stomach or esophageal ulcers, Barrett’s esophagus (a disorder where the esophagus is damaged by stomach acid and the tissue changes to resemble that of the stomach lining) or even stomach cancer.

Symptoms of Digestive Distress

The symptoms of the various digestive systems are similar, and only a physician can definitively diagnose a specific cause. Much depends on how long someone has had the symptoms and how severe they are. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Frequent and persistent nausea
  • Sense of burning in the mid to upper torso
  • Unusual, frequent burping
  • Acid reflux, or regurgitation of partly digested food into the esophagus

In some people these signs can also warn of a possible heart attack. If pain accompanies the symptoms it would be wise to get to a doctor as soon as possible for a definitive diagnosis.

Causes of Digestive Distress

Stomach distress can result in gas, bloating, increased stomach acid, constipation and diarrhea. While there is no specific known cause for most digestive disorders, there are several triggers that are associated with them:

  • Smoking weakens the lower gastroesophageal sphincter, which can result in a backflow of stomach acid. The chemicals in tobacco also cause the body to make less saliva, which affects how food is digested. Smokers also tend to cough a lot more than non-smokers, which can affect the esophageal muscles.
  • Taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like aspirin or ibuprofen
  • Fish oil supplements can aggravate digestive problems. Try taking an enteric coated fish oil supplement that will dissolve in the intestine rather that in the stomach. Take the supplement with food rather than on its own. There are also non-fish sources of omega-3 supplements.
  • Being overweight puts additional pressure on the abdomen, intestines and stomach.
  • Overeating can cause the stomach’s contents to back up into the esophagus.
  • Pregnancy, because of the extra pressure placed on the stomach by the growing baby.
  • Genetics have been found to influence the occurrence of GERD. It may be that certain genetic factors along with lifestyle may make a person more susceptible to digestive disorders.
  • Connective tissue diseases, such as lupus or scleroderma, can result in digestive disorders. They may be caused by a reaction to medication being used to treat the disorder or may result from the disorder itself.

Dietary Considerations

Certain foods can increase the likelihood of digestive distress and lead to more serious problems. Citrus fruits and juices, carbonated beverages, spicy foods, garlic, tomatoes, chocolate, and caffeine are just a few of the culprits.

Along with trying to reduce stress, which doesn’t cause but can aggravate the symptoms of heartburn, GERD, and other digestive ailments, dietary changes can help to ease the discomfort and promote healing. Taking probiotics can often help reduce digestive problems, as can the following foods:

  • A teaspoon of diluted apple cider vinegar eases certain types of heartburn because of too little acid in the stomach. It gives the digestive process a bit of a boost. While there isn’t much research to prove this, there is quite a lot of anecdotal evidence to support the use of apple cider vinegar.
  • Try eating a banana each day. It works like an antacid to soothe and even prevent heartburn.
  • In the past, milk or other dairy products were often prescribed for digestive problems. Still, the dietary fat they contain increases the body’s formation of stomach acid and can add to the discomfort of digestive problems. Nonfat milk might provide temporary relief but low-fat yogurt has the same effect with the added benefit of probiotics.

Herbal Remedies Offer Some Relief

Various herbal remedies are effective in easing stomach distress and heartburn.

  • Aloe vera helps to soothe and calm irritation in the esophageal lining. (Note: Pregnant women should not drink aloe vera juice.)
  • Licorice root can help restore the stomach’s mucus lining and calm heartburn.
  • Slippery elm helps reduce intestinal irritation, soothe stomach distress and ease the pain of a sore throat – which can result from acid reflux.
  • Ginger is beneficial for people with heartburn due to its medicinal properties and anti-inflammatory effects, as it is alkaline and can neutralize stomach acid, easing irritation in the gastrointestinal tract, and has historically been used to alleviate digestive issues. While not a permanent solution a cut of ginger root tea can help relieve heartburn.
  • Depending on the cause, peppermint can either ease or irritate heartburn. It may act to relax the lower esophageal sphincter (also called the cardia), which keeps food in the stomach and can result in acid reflux.
  • Fennel seeds can be chewed or made into tea and ingested after every meal. This will help to reduce gas, cramps and acid indigestion. Fennel seed helps to inhibit the spasms in smooth muscles, which are located along the digestive tract.
  • Chamomile tea can be very soothing and help to reduce the anxiety associated with digestive problems. As with fennel, chamomile also helps to relax the smooth muscles associated with digestion. (Note: Pregnant women should not drink chamomile tea without talking to their doctor first.)

Of course, there may be side effects with these herbal remedies for those with other pre-existing conditions. So one must do research or speak with their healthcare professional if they have any other conditions.

Can Massage Help Digestive Stress?

Massage won’t cure heartburn, GERD, or other digestive problems, but it can help to ease the stress that exacerbates the symptoms. Massage can help to improve digestive functioning as well as restore balance to the body’s autonomic nervous system by promoting of the parasympathetic (rest and digest) response and inhibiting the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight).

There are some precautions massage therapists need to take if a client reveals they suffer from frequent heartburn.

  • Don’t work on a client within two hours after they have eaten.
  • Lying down can often stimulate or worsen acid reflux. Using a bolster or pillow to prop up a person when lying supine can help. Another solution for both supine and prone positioning is to raise the head of the table approximately six inches higher than the foot of the table.
  • Consider giving the massage in a semi reclining position or, better yet, offering the client chair massage as an option.
  • Do not use abdominal massage or otherwise stimulate the abdomen. Areas around the stomach or esophagus would be considered a local contraindication.
  • Never work on someone experiencing abdominal pain. Refer the client to a physician for further examination.

It is important to discover the reason for abdominal discomfort before proceeding with the massage. Under the right circumstances, massage therapy can be therapeutic and result in a client with improved digestion and a relaxed attitude.


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