UC HEALTH LINE: Holiday Stomachache May Warn of Serious Condition
A digestive disease expert at the University of Cincinnati says that uncomfortable stomachaches associated with big holiday meals could be the warning sign of a serious condition that requires more than a few antacids to remedy.
According to Michael Nussbaum, MD, a gastrointestinal surgeon, many conditions can be “activated” by overeating, including gallstones, pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) and gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as “acid reflux.”
All the conditions, which are often interrelated, can cause digestive dysfunction.
Dr. Nussbaum says many people self-diagnose—or dismiss—the pain as indigestion, when in reality their bodies are giving them an important warning sign.
“Around the holidays, people are more likely to indulge in fatty foods, alcoholic beverages and other temptations,” says Dr. Nussbaum. “And if they find that every holiday party they attend ends in mild, but persistent abdominal pain, it may be a sign of a more serious digestive disease that needs immediate medical attention.”
“Alcohol, nicotine and fatty foods can exacerbate dysfunction in many areas of the body,” explains Dr. Nussbaum.
This is how it works:
The gallbladder, a small sac under the liver, releases a brownish-yellow fluid known as bile that plays a key role in breaking down fats. A high-fat diet can tip the balance, causing the liver to produce more cholesterol than the bile can handle. The excess cholesterol forms small crystal deposits known as gallstones.
About an hour after a big meal, Dr. Nussbaum explains, the gallbladder contracts against the lodged “stone,” causing abdominal pain and nausea.
The enzymes that break down food cannot start the digestion process until they pass out of the pancreas and into the intestine. If a gallstone blocks the exit out of the pancreas, digestive juices will back up into the organ and cause inflammation, known as pancreatitis. The body begins to “auto digest” the pancreas, resulting in dangerous tissue damage and extreme pain.
In the case of acid reflux, the valve between the stomach and the esophagus weakens and allows digestive juices to leak back from the stomach into the esophagus. The more than 100 million people who suffer from this condition experience a burning sensation in the chest and have trouble swallowing some foods.
“Any pain that lasts for more than 30 minutes should never be ignored,” says Dr. Nussbaum. “If treated early, most problems can be managed with medication. In more advanced cases, surgery may be required.”
Dr. Nussbaum offers this simple advice:
“Everything in moderation,” he advises. “You don’t have to completely cut temptations and libations out of your diet, but you do need to know what’s right for your body.”
He recommends avoiding fatty foods, alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes—all of which can exacerbate existing gastrointestinal conditions and contribute to other potential health problems. He also notes that overindulgence in alcohol is directly toxic to the pancreas and can cause pancreatitis, even without the presence of gallstones.
Dr. Nussbaum is one of more than 300 experts available to answer questions on Netwellness.org, a nonprofit, consumer-health Web site that provides information created and evaluated by faculty physicians at UC, Case Western Reserve University and Ohio State University. Started in June 1995, NetWellness was one of the first health sites on the Internet.
UC Health Line contains timely health information and is distributed every Tuesday by the UC Academic Health Center Public Relations and Communications Office.