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Having an upset stomach is something that happens to everyone at some point in their life. The connection between the gut and the brain is a strong one, and it’s why gut health has become such a huge factor in overall health and modern medicine today.
It’s true that it might be easier to reach for an over-the-counter pain relief for stomach cramps, or an anti-nausea medication when your stomach is turning – but use of over-the-counter drugs can be especially hard on the liver. Natural remedies for gastric upset are often effective and much easier on the body.
Gastric upset and its causes
Studies have shown that some gastric upset can be attributed to certain mental health conditions. Things like anxiety and depression can cause physiological changes in the stomach that lead to symptoms like nausea, cramps and IBS. Many people with gastrointestinal tract disorders feel pain in the stomach area more acutely, thus causing a mild pain to feel more severe, leading to them reaching for the medicine cabinet.
Of course, not all GI disorders stem from psychological issues. Colitis, for example, is a disorder that causes the inner lining of the intestines to become inflamed and can also lead to cramps, intense pain and changes in bowel habits. For those suffering other chronic illnesses such as Lyme disease, the immune function becomes compromised, leading to inflammation and often digestive issues.
Chronic digestive and gastrointestinal issues can decrease a person’s quality of life significantly if they have to contend with symptoms on a day-to-day basis. Since a person’s brain and gut are connected so closely, having to deal with chronic pain, constipation, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting can also lead to new or worsened anxiety and depression.
What helps soothe an upset stomach?
The best way to soothe an upset stomach is to find out its underlying cause, but that can be difficult to do – which leads to the need for soothing the symptom, as opposed to treating it directly. Taking an over-the-counter drug such as dimenhydrinate (Gravol) can help fight the nausea, vomiting and dizziness that often comes with an upset stomach; bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) is good for nausea, vomiting, indigestion, heartburn and diarrhoea. However, both of these are just temporary solutions and shouldn’t be taken long-term.
When it comes to the long-term treatment of upset stomach, natural remedies are a better route to take. They will be easier on the body while still addressing the symptoms people with chronic GI problems often deal with. (Note that if stomach issues occur due to anxiety or depression, or are psychosomatic in nature, they are often harder to address.)
What is a natural remedy for stomach cramps?
Stomach cramps are a lot harder to pin down when it comes to treatment, because they can stem from different parts of the body. A build-up of gas inside the intestines will cause pain that can be felt in both the lower GI tract and even in the chest area. This pain will be different than one felt due to muscle spasms in the lower abdomen.
Changes in the diet can also lead to stomach cramps, so choosing the right food is a good way to battle the pain without having to take any medication. Spicy foods and foods with a high acidic content have been known to cause stomach cramps because they irritate the lining of the stomach and intestines. However, if staying away from these foods isn’t an effective option, there are herbs that can help with all different kinds of gastric upset.
Frankincense and its biologically active ingredients, the boswellic acids, can be particularly useful when it comes to chronic inflammatory diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. Boswellic acids have recently gained more and more attention due to their anti-inflammatory properties, especially for the gut lining, where production and release of pro-inflammatory cytokines can be enzymatically suppressed. Frankincense may be consumed in the form of powder or capsules, and is also used in aromatherapy to treat both anxiety and gastric disorders.
Ginger has been used as a natural remedy for nausea and vomiting for thousands of years, due to its properties as a natural carminative and intestinal spasmolytic. The main ingredient that aids in relief is gingerols. Gingerols offer anti-inflammatory properties, and also have an effect on the brain. Some doctors believe that ginger can help relieve nausea because the gingerols obstruct serotonin receptors, thus halting that sick feeling before it starts. Brewing ginger in a tea, chewing on the stem, or eating it with food is the most effective way to incorporate it in stomach upset relief.
Peppermint is known for its calming effects on the body. It has been used as a natural remedy for IBS, chronic pain, stomach upset, headache and anxiety. It has cineol and menthyl acetate compounds that can inhibit pain production in the body by reducing pain-sensing fibres. Peppermint is especially useful in the treatment of IBS, which is a chronic condition often attributed to damaged nerve pain fibres, leading to a permanent change in the gut. Peppermint comes in topical ointments and diffusing liquids, and can also be brewed into a tea.
Chamomile has been used for centuries to aid sleep, digestive issues and mental illness. It contains a benzodiazepine-like compound, namely azulene or ‘chamomile blue’, that contributes to its anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic and carminative effects on the intestinal tract. Chamomile eases digestion by calming the body and allowing for relaxation. It can also help with acid reflux by decreasing high levels of acid in the gastrointestinal tract. For stomach issues such as chronic cramps or pain, chamomile can also provide relief by reducing muscle spasms. Chamomile tea (or tea from the related milfoil) are good ways to ingest the herb; it can be taken between meals, four times a day.
Bitter compounds are a great way to combat digestive issues due to their different mechanisms of action. First and foremost, bitter receptors on the tongue and roof of the mouth receive the bitter taste and stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. This results in spasmolytic actions in our gut, whereas the simulation of the parasympathetic nervous system leads to an increased secretion of saliva and other digestive juices.
Bitter compounds also increase the HCL secretion in our stomachs, encouraging balanced HCI levels and the production of endogenous digestive. (Patients suffering from hyperacidity should not consume large amounts of bitter compounds.) Commonly known bitter herbs with medical uses include hawkbit and kitchen herbs such as parsley, cilantro and thyme, as well as gentian and several artemisia species.
If you're looking for more herbal remedies for common ailments, check out our post on herbs that help induce sleep!