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Burning stomach? How to know when to call the doctor

Your tummy's been giving you trouble and you're wondering if you have any other options than calling your doctor.
/ Source: TODAY

Your tummy’s been giving you trouble and you’re wondering if you have any other options than calling your doctor. The answer depends on what’s causing your symptoms. It's important to consult a medical professional for chronic gastrointestinal conditions, but there are also lifestyle changes that can help.

Acid reflux

This occurs when the stomach contents, including acid, flow backwards up into the chest and throat.

“It causes a hot, painful or burning sensation under the breast bone, that often is worse after eating or when lying down,” explained Dr. Bennett E. Roth, a professor of clinical medicine and chief of gastrointestinal endoscopy at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

There are a number of things you can do on your own to improve the situation, according to Dr. Greg Thorkelson, an assistant professor in the departments of psychiatry and gastroenterology at the University of Pittsburgh.

First, you can make sure you aren’t eating or drinking right before you lay down to sleep. Also, you might want to cut back on alcohol, caffeine, fatty foods and smoking.

In general, doctors advise:

  • Avoiding trigger foods
  • Not eating big meals before bedtime
  • Elevating the head while sleeping
  • And, most importantly, losing weight

Beyond that, Thorkelson said, “you should have a more mindful approach to the consumption of food. These days it’s common to have a mindless way of eating. We eat faster and chew less.” Slow the whole process down and the stomach will be able to do its job better, Thorkelson added.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

The condition is thought to be caused by a malfunction of the nerves that control intestinal function and perception, said Roth. And it affects about 20 percent of adults in the U.S.

Symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Cramping

"Often the symptoms are relieved by the passage of stool,” said Thorkelson.

A big issue for many who suffer from IBS is stress, Thorkelson said. So anything that soothes the stress, and that includes exercise, mindfulness training, and meditation, may improve symptoms.

Increasing dietary fiber can help with symptoms. But, Thorkelson advised, you may need to work up to it starting with small amounts.


These are sores that develop in the stomach or duodenal lining.

“They present with burning pain that comes and goes and may worsen when you’re hungry and may be relieved by eating,” Roth said. “They can be caused by anti-inflammatory drugs or aspirin. If you develop these symptoms avoid those drugs. Some patients get the condition as a result of the bacteria H. pylori [Helicobacter pylori].”

Treatment for ulcers caused by H. pylori is antibiotics. But, Roth noted, many people have the bacteria in their systems and never develop an ulcer.

Lactose Intolerance

If you don’t produce enough of the enzyme needed to digest the lactose in milk products, you may experience nausea, bloating and cramping after consuming them.

One solution is to drink milk that contains a lactose substitute. You can also experiment with cheeses to determine which agree with you most.

As a rule of thumb, hard cheeses tend to contain less lactose. Cottage cheese is also generally well tolerated.

Celiac Disease

People with celiac disease can’t tolerate gluten.

The protein, which is found in wheat, rye, and barley, kicks off an auto immune response in people with the disease that can cause damage to the small intestine and interfere with the absorption of nutrients.

Although the disease was once thought to be rare, experts currently estimate that there are more than 2 million people in the United States with the genetic disorder. That amounts to about 1 in 133 people, according to the National Institutes of Health.

In some people the disease is “silent,” Roth said, adding that “the only manifestation is an iron deficiency or the development of osteoporosis form many years of inadequate calcium absorption.” In others, he said, the disease can lead to bloating, weight loss and failure to thrive.

“If it’s a young person I ask, how much do your brothers, sisters and parents weigh and how tall are they,” Roth said. “Often the person with celiac is the runt of the family because they have trouble absorbing nutrients. The treatment is strict gluten withdrawal from the diet and we strongly recommend that folks seek a professional dietician for advice.”

Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to and She is co-author of "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic” and the recently published “Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry”

This updated story was originally published in August 2016.