Eight Digestive Health Myths
We separate fact from fiction for these common digestive misconceptions.
1. Spicy foods cause ulcers.
Ulcers-open sores located in the stomach (gastric ulcers) or small intestine (duodenal ulcers)-are not caused by certain foods, according to the experts at the American College of Gastroenterology. Though certain foods can irritate an ulcer that is already there, they don't cause the sore.
Most ulcers are caused by an infection of Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a bacterium that lives in the stomach. Though not everyone with the bacteria will develop ulcers, it does increase the risk. If you have an ulcer, you're physician will test for an H. pylori infection which can be treated with antibiotics.
Another common cause of ulcers is extended use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, can block the ability of the stomach and the small intestine to deal with stomach acid, resulting in ulcers.
2. Celiac disease causes disabling digestive symptoms.
The classic symptoms of celiac disease-abdominal pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea-may not be present in many people diagnosed with the disease. Symptoms vary and are not always gastrointestinal, says the Celiac Disease Foundation. And when they are gastro-related, they often mimic other bowel disorders making the disease hard to diagnose.
People with celiac disease are intolerant to gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley. When gluten is consumed, the villi in the small intestines are damaged, preventing the absorption of nutrients. Other symptoms include osteoporosis, dental enamel defect, depression, migraines, and dermatitis herpetiformis-a skin condition that affects the face, elbows, knees, and buttocks.
3. Cirrhosis is only caused by alcoholism.
Cirrhosis is the scarring of the liver which impedes the blood flow through the organ, preventing it from fighting infection, cleaning the blood and other functions, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.
Though heavy consumption of alcohol is the most common cause of cirrhosis, it's not the only one. Chronic hepatitis (B, C, or D), autoimmune hepatitis, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (often due to obesity), and diseases that damage bile ducts can all contribute to cirrhosis. Inherited diseases, hemochromatosis, prophyria, and Wilson's disease, can cause cirrhosis as well.
Symptoms of cirrhosis include fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea, and visible red, spider-shaped blood vessels under your skin.
4. Eating a high fiber diet reduces your risk of diverticulosis.
Contrary to popular thinking, eating a high-fiber, low-fat diet may not reduce risk of developing diverticulosis, a condition in which pouches form in the wall of the colon. (Diverticulitis is when inflammation of that tissue occurs.)
A cross-sectional study of about 2,100 people, 30 to 80 years old, found that high intake of fiber did not reduce the prevalence of diverticulosis. In fact, those who reported the highest fiber intake were 30 percent more likely to have diverticulosis than those who reported a low-fiber diet. The study, published in the February 2012 issue of Gastroenterology, went against common thinking-that a high fiber diet reduces risk of the condition.
5. Constipation can increase risk of colon cancer.
There seems to be a persistent belief that an accumulation of toxins from infrequent bowel movements can lead to cancer. Experts assure us that there is no evidence that constipation causes the disease. It can, however, be a symptom of colon cancer. Any changes in your bowel movements should be discussed with your physician.
To prevent constipation, eat a well-balanced high-fiber diet, drink plenty of fluids, and exercise regularly.
6. Sleeping in an upright position will ease heartburn symptoms.
You know not to lie down immediately after eating a meal, but you can lie down to go to sleep. There's no evidence that sleeping upright will alleviate heartburn, so rest easy (with your head on a pillow) with these expert-approved tips: Wait at least three hours after a meal before going to bed; and place wood blocks under the feet at the head of your bed or insert a wedge between the mattress and box spring to raise your upper body.
7. IBS is caused by stress.
True, stress has been found to stimulate colon spasms in people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), but stress is not the cause of the condition. Experts know that muscles in the stomach may contract irregularly, causing food to move through the intestines more quickly or more slowly. Other factors include lower serotonin levels-which have a role in digestive function-and possibly an imbalance of bacteria in the intestine.
Certain foods can also trigger a flare, but like stress, these triggers can be managed. Stress-reducing practices (yoga, meditation, exercise) and food diaries to pinpoint problem foods will help manage the condition.
8. You need to avoid all dairy products if you're lactose intolerant.
Being lactose intolerant means you lack an enzyme that helps break down lactase-a sugar found in dairy products. But, there are varying degrees to being lactose intolerant. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), "some people might be able to have a tablespoon of milk in a cup of coffee with little or no discomfort. Others have reactions that are so bad they stop drinking milk entirely. Some people who cannot drink milk may be able to eat cheese and yogurt-which have less lactose than milk-without symptoms. They may also be able to consume a lactose-containing product in smaller amounts at any one time."