Eating Right for Healthier Digestion


The right dietary choices and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs can cure -- or at least alleviate -- gastrointestinal problems, including esophageal reflux, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ulcers.



The most common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is heartburn -- a result of stomach acid backing up into the esophagus. When acid rises into the throat, it causes a sour taste.


Acid reflux may inflame the esophagus, resulting in scarring and difficulty swallowing. Seven percent of Americans have heartburn every day... 25% have it once or twice a month.


Less common symptoms: Swallowing difficulties... spasms of the esophagus... asthma attacks. The associated pressure in the chest is sometimes mistaken for angina, sending people to the hospital or their cardiologists.


Obesity connection: The heavier you are, the more likely you are to have reflux. Obese people have a 16-fold increased risk of cancer of the esophagus due to GERD... and eight times the risk of hiatal hernia. Hiatal hernia is a larger-than-normal opening in the diaphragm (breathing muscle) that allows the stomach to protrude into the chest cavity.


Approaches that are effective in battling GERD...

  • Don't overeat. The more you weigh, the more pressure in your abdomen. This can overwhelm the lower esophageal sphincter -- the muscle that prevents acid from coming back up.

Result: Reflux of acid into the esophagus.


Overeating also distends the stomach. That causes the esophageal sphincter to relax, again causing reflux.

  • Don't eat for three hours before bedtime. Acid surges occur one and three hours after a meal. If you are lying down when the surge occurs, acid is more likely to flow into the esophagus.
  • Avoid foods that relax the esophageal sphincter. These include...
    1. Caffeine, which also stimulates acid production.
    2. Chocolate.
    3. Decaffeinated coffee, which can stimulate acid production.
    4. Fatty foods, such as cheese, fried food, butter, chips and ice cream.
    5. Nuts.
    6. Peppermint -- menthol in peppermint relaxes muscles. Enteric-coated peppermint, sold in health-food stores, is fine.
    7. Spicy foods -- if they bother you.
    8. Tomato and citrus juices -- if they bother you.
  • Try over-the-counter medications, such as Pepcid Complete, a combination of Pepcid AC that provides sustained relief and an antiacid that provides rapid relief.
  • Raise the head of your bed by six inches to help prevent acid reflux while you sleep.

If these strategies don't relieve GERD, see your doctor. Stronger medication can be prescribed. In difficult cases, endoscopic suturing (EndoCinch) or laparoscopic surgery can stop acid reflux.




IBS is four times more common in women than in men. Symptoms usually start around age 20. They include cramps... constipation or diarrhea... or constipation alternating with diarrhea, often accompanied by a bloated feeling.


People with IBS have increased visceral sensitivity -- they feel things in their intestines more acutely than others do.


IBS is usually diagnosed once other colon disorders have been ruled out and the cause of the symptoms is not clear. Treatment...


  • Get more fiber. Whether you have diarrhea or constipation, dietary fiber helps.

If you have diarrhea, fiber absorbs excess fluid and firms the stool. If you are constipated, fiber helps hold water, softening the stool and making it easier to pass.


Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans are good sources of fiber. If extra fruits and vegetables don't help, talk with your doctor about a fiber supplement or bulk laxative such as FiberCon, Metamucil or Perdiem.


Rarely, adding fiber to the diet increases pressure in the colon and causes pain. If that happens, discontinue fiber supplements and consult your physician.

  • Avoid overeating. It overstimulates the bowel and may cause cramps.
  • Avoid fatty foods.
  • Avoid caffeine if you have diarrhea. It stimulates intestinal secretions and worsens diarrhea.
  • Drink a caffeinated beverage if you are constipated. It may stimulate a bowel movement. Be sure to drink extra water, however, because caffeine has a diuretic effect and dehydration can aggravate constipation.
  • Try enteric-coated peppermint. Commonly used to treat IBS in England, these tablets relax the bowels, making elimination easier. In the US, they are sold in health-food stores. No known harmful effects are associated with enteric-coated peppermint.

If diet fails to alleviate IBS, medication can be prescribed by a physician, based upon your predominant symptoms.


Examples: Dicyclomine (Bentyl) for cramps... Imodium for diarrhea... milk of magnesia for constipation.



Ulcer treatment is based on prescription-strength antiacid medication (Aciphex, Pepcid) and/or antibiotics to eradicate H. pylori bacteria, a leading cause of peptic ulcers. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) should be discontinued.


Caution: While in the past it was commonly recommended, don't drink milk for ulcers. Milk does neutralize acid and can relieve ulcer pain temporarily, but it ultimately increases production of stomach acid, making ulcers worse.




If you eat a healthful diet, you will pass gas 13 times a day, on average. To avoid excess gas from a high-fiber diet, increase fiber slowly. Beano can help minimize gas from cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli) and beans.




A high-fiber, low-fat diet is the best treatment for chronic constipation. Avoid fatty foods... eat more fruits and vegetables... and drink plenty of water.



Bottom Line/Personal interviewed Steven R. Peikin, MD, head of gastroenterology, Cooper Health System, and professor of medicine, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, both in Camden, New Jersey.

He is author of Gastrointestinal Health (Harper).

(Kay’s Note:  The above often doesn’t work. The esophagus and intestines may be too burned/irritated to tolerate any foods without causing painful symptoms.  Medications only masque the symptoms for a while and then stop working. The SCD offers a cure if begun before too much damage is done.)