August is National Gastroparesis Awareness Month…and you might be wondering what is that and why are we even talking about it. But, despite some of you possibly not being really aware of this health issue, one thing that is linked to it is actually commonly talked about and that’s Diabetes. Diabetics can get this issue. What is this issue? Well, let me explain.
Gastroparesis is a condition where the stomach muscle is not as effective at moving spontaneously and getting food down into the lower gastrointestinal tract therefore digestion is slow and frequently it takes a long time for food to move along the tract. It is suggested that this is due to a nerve issue that involves the nerve called the vagus nerve. Some of the symptoms are nausea and vomiting and abdominal discomfort and bloating and regurgitation of food even a long time after eating. This can frequently be described by people as “slow digestion.”
So, what could be other possible causes?
Well, medications can trigger slow digestion. Medications such as anti-depressant medications or some allergy or blood pressure medications. Also, pain medications like narcotic opioid therapy options can definitely slow digestion. So, if you have symptoms of “slow digestion,” make sure you let your doctors know that so they try to avoid giving you medications that can worsen the symptoms more.
If you think you might have “slow digestion” but you’re not sure, how can you find out if you have gastroparesis?
There are studies that can be done to evaluate for this. Your gastroenterologist might want to do an upper endoscopy to look into your stomach but your doctor will likely do testing like a gastric emptying test to see the rate of digestion. That is a study where your doctor is able to monitor a small amount of radioactive material that you ingest and see how quickly or slowly that material moves through your GI tract. If it’s slower than the “normal rate” then they would let you know and you’d implement steps to help this.
How can you make the symptoms better?
Diet change is a big factor. Even if you don’t have the actual diagnosis of “gastroparesis,” if you feel like you have days where your digestion is a bit more sluggish, you can incorporate some of these tips.
Try to eat smaller meals and more often so that you get in the calories you need but not in large meals since those are harder to digest and might cause more symptoms if a large amount sits for a long time in your stomach. Also, try to eat cooked and softer foods so that they are easier to digest. Try to avoid large volumes of fiber since that also makes digestion more difficult if your spontaneous muscle activity is slower and then the fiber makes the stomach feel more uncomfortable. Try to walk after you eat to help speed up digestion but avoid strenuous activities after you eat since food will likely still be sitting in your stomach for a while.
There are medications that help to speed up the stomach muscles so you might want to talk to your doctor about removing medications that worsen the symptom and adding medications that help your stomach movement/motility. There are also medications that help with nausea if that happens. So, don’t be shy about asking your doctor.
Finally, there are surgical options but typically that is more of a later solution and the more conservative options like lifestyle and medication changes are tried first. But if nothing worse, definitely have the discussion about surgical options with your doctor. At the end of the day, if you have this condition, it is bothersome and uncomfortable and it needs to be addressed and your doctors are well aware of what it is so don’t be shy about asking for help.