Stomach Soothers

Your gut is so busy, it requires its own nervous system. Here's how to keep things calm, cool, and trouble-free.
Stomach Soothers
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Does your stomach have a mind of its own? With all of those nervous butterflies, stress knots, postprandial flare-ups and other gut-based feelings, it certainly seems like it.

In fact, your digestive system does contain a second brain of sorts, known as the enteric nervous system, which produces every class of neurotransmitter found in the brain in your head. It's a hotbed of activity, too: The number of messages sent by the enteric nervous system to the brain outnumbers the communications traveling in the reverse direction by nearly ninefold.

"The brain in your head doesn't tell the brain in your gut specifics of what to do, but it does tell it to do more or do less," says Michael D. Gershon, M.D., chairman of the department of anatomy and cell biology at Columbia University and author of The Second Brain: A Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Small Intestine. "And if, as a result of those signals, the gut acquires excess motility, that leads to pain, cramps, disturbance or diarrhea."

In light of this, researchers are taking a new look at stomach upset. For example, the enteric nervous system reacts promptly to changes in the availability of serotonin; indeed, most of your body's serotonin is produced by the digestive system. That's why mood-altering drugs that change serotonin levels are likely to affect the digestive system at low doses. Also, conditions such as ulcers, once thought to be provoked by anxiety, are now known to have a physiological origin. If you experience symptoms of stomach distress every day or every week, see your doctor. Meanwhile, mild or intermittent conditions may be relieved-or even prevented-by the natural remedies and healthy habits that improve elements of digestive function.

Gas And Bloating
Flatulence is more than just embarrassing-that buildup of air in your abdomen can become uncomfortable or even painful. Gas is caused by the fermentation of carbohydrates broken down by bacteria, a perfectly normal part of digestion. Unfortunately, the fiber-rich vegetables that are a necessary part of your healthful diet can also increase gas production, says Anil Minocha, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine and author of Natural Stomach Care.

While you can't stop it entirely, you can decrease the chances that your own natural-gas factory will cause excess bloating or empty the room around you. For occasional symptoms-or before a big night out-try an over-the-counter product containing simethicone, such as Gas-X or Phazyme; this is a chemical that breaks up bubbles and is often added to antacids. Activated charcoal tablets may absorb some of your gas, but check with your doctor because charcoal sometimes interferes with the effectiveness of certain medications, warns Gary Gitnick, M.D., chief of the division of digestive diseases at UCLA Medical School and the author of Freedom From Digestive Stress.

For natural prevention of excess gas, your best strategy is to reduce the fermentation process. For that, take the following steps: