Many people are familiar with the term "canary in the coal mine." This phrase refers to the sometimes unfortunate fate of small birds taken into coal mines as an alert system. When air quality would get too poor, these little birds would feel the effects before miners did.
Though your stomach doesn't really sing songs, except perhaps after spicy food, it can act as a warning system for other conditions affecting your body. Stress, autoimmune disorders and several other factors can result in a condition called gastritis that is often a signal something deeper is wrong.
What is Gastritis?
Problems further down your GI tract usually get more press, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or food sensitivities like celiac disease, which affects the lining of your small intestine. Gastritis, on the other hand, is an inflammation of the stomach lining. As with any other disease or condition that affects your digestive system, issues that affect the stomach can have dramatic and uncomfortable effects.
Gastritis is an irritation or even erosion of the lining of the stomach caused when your body is producing too much stomach acid. This can be caused by many different things, but the effects are the same. Gastritis can occur gradually over time, known as chronic gastritis, or it can develop suddenly in what is called acute gastritis.
Many gastrointestinal disorders share a list of common symptoms, and gastritis is no exception. Indigestion, vomiting, nausea, bloating, loss of appetite, and abdominal pain are all symptoms shared with many other conditions. Some symptoms are more specific, such as a gnawing or burning feeling in the stomach, particularly between meals or at night. Vomiting blood or a coffee ground-like substance is also a symptom that helps distinguish gastritis from other conditions. Lastly, you may experience black, tarry stools, which can help differentiate gastritis from other maladies such as gallbladder issues which can leave the stools chalky and white.
Gastritis itself is distinctly uncomfortable and may cause you to lose your appetite. The effects of gastritis can be quite serious, however, and you should definitely seek treatment. Over time, the damage done by gastritis can lead to an erosion of the lining of the stomach, and may even contribute to stomach cancer. Even though there are long-term concerns for sufferers of gastritis, if you are vomiting blood, you should call your doctor or get to a hospital immediately.
What Causes Gastritis?
Many different things can lead to gastritis, as it is often a result of an underlying condition rather than a causal medical condition in its own right. Medical issues, lifestyle choices and even diet can all contribute to gastritis. Even the drugs you may be taking for other medical conditions could be at play.
Two of the main lifestyle factors that can contribute to gastritis are excessive alcohol consumption and stress. Both of these conditions produce a similar effect; your stomach produces more acid than usual. If you are failing to maintain a healthy diet and eating at appropriate intervals, this effect will only be increased.
Excessive drinking is particularly problematic if you are drinking while not consuming food to help absorb the acid your stomach produces. It will only compound matters if you are also taking medications while drinking. Anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and alcohol are a dangerous combination for your liver, and your stomach fares no better. Though readily available and effective for relieving pain, there are still side effects of using anti-inflammatory drugs for long periods of time. Some people make the mistake of taking painkillers to ease the discomfort caused by gastritis, but this only furthers the problem. Taking antacids is a better plan.
Stress, especially chronic stress over long periods of time will wreak havoc on the entire body, and the stomach is no exception. When you are stressed, your stomach produces more acid than usual, as the levels of hormones in your stomach are thrown out of balance. The stomach is normally a very acidic environment, but when hormones are disturbed into producing more acid when no food is present, your stomach can become too acidic.
If you have been through severe emotional trauma, intracranial trauma, or ventilator dependency, erosion of the stomach lining is possible. These gastric erosions are sometimes known as curling ulcers. As your stress level rises, your body’s ability to renew the mucous membrane of the stomach lowers. This, combined with the increased levels of stress hormones and gastric acid, and a decrease of blood flow to the stomach make for a very toxic combination that is primed for the formation of ulcers.
Other medical issues can cause gastritis, such as a backflow of bile into your stomach. Normally, bile and pancreatic juices flow into the intestines through the common bile duct, which is downstream from the stomach. It is possible, however, for bile to flow back into the stomach in a condition known as bile reflux gastritis. This condition is related to a more specific variety many people know as GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease. This occurs when the bile excreted by the liver makes it all the way back through the stomach and into the esophagus. This form of vomiting can be difficult to distinguish from acid reflux, but the presence of greenish-yellow bile in your vomit is a sign of bile reflux.
Autoimmune diseases are also common causes of gastritis. Type I diabetes, vitamin B-12 deficiency, and other autoimmune disorders and conditions can contribute to gastritis. This can take the form of lowered autoimmune function in individuals with HIV/AIDS or it can involve your own immune system attacking the lining of your stomach. This variant, known as autoimmune gastritis, is not the most common form, but it can be harder to treat, as the underlying cause cannot be eliminated by changing your diet or lifestyle.
There are other causes of gastritis that have nothing to do with what you put into your body or how you eat. Bacteria and viruses can cause gastritis even if other risk factors are not present. Helicobacter pylori (h. pylori) infection is one such bacteria that can be a root cause of gastritis. In fact, this is one of the most common causes of chronic inflammatory disorders worldwide. H. pylori bacterial infection is an infection of the stomach lining and causes an increase in the gastrin release of your stomach. Gastrin is one of the hormones responsible for prompting your stomach to release acid, so an increase in gastrin will cause your stomach to be more acidic, even when food is not present to be digested. This increase can lead to irritation, ulcers and the eventual erosion of the stomach lining.
How Is Gastritis Diagnosed?
Aside from the presence of specific, telltale symptoms, gastritis can be hard to diagnose right away. Since it shares a list of common symptoms with other gastric conditions, it can be hard to pinpoint the cause of your discomfort right away. Despite this, there are some things your doctor or health care provider will suggest to begin treatment.
First off, your doctor will likely ask you a series of questions about your medical conditions, lifestyle and family history to get as much health information about you as possible. After this, he or she will suggest more specific tests to start focusing in on what might be causing the problem. One of the most common tests is for H. pylori. The H. pylori bacteria can be found in a blood test, stool sample or sometimes a breath test after drinking a liquid containing a certain type of radioactive carbon.
It is sometimes possible to diagnose gastritis through an x-ray. After drinking a solution containing barium, images will be taken of your esophagus, stomach and small intestines. The results of these images can help your doctor see the nature and location of damage to your gastrointestinal tract.
Ultimately, the best way to see what is going on inside is to actually take a look. For gastritis, this means a procedure called an upper endoscopy. During this procedure, a small camera inside a small, flexible tube known as an endoscope is threaded through your mouth and down your esophagus into your stomach. By looking at the images from the camera, your doctor can examine the lining of the stomach for signs of inflammation. During an endoscopy, it is also possible to retrieve samples of tissue from your stomach to perform a biopsy which can confirm the presence of H. pylori bacteria.
How do You Treat Gastritis?
As we have seen, all forms of gastritis come down to the same problem—too much acid in your stomach. Getting rid of your gastritis means managing or eliminating the source of stress or irritation that is causing an increase in digestive juices. No matter what it will take to manage your gastritis, taking antacids to help calm the stomach will almost certainly be a part of helping your stomach heal from the damage it has suffered.
If an H. pylori infection is present, your doctor will prescribe a course of antibiotics in an attempt to kill the offending bacteria. Two common drugs used are amoxicillin and clarithromycin. Depending on the severity of infection, your doctor will likely prescribe either a seven or 14-day course of antibiotics.
Another key pharmaceutical component of treatment for gastritis is a class of medications known as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). These drugs work by, as the name suggests, binding to the cells responsible for secreting gastric juices into the stomach. These proton pump inhibitors can help reduce the amount of acid your body produces, and can be useful in situations where the reason for your gastritis is not easily or quickly solved. Your doctor will have to evaluate the source of your gastritis carefully, though, as PPIs are not effective against certain kinds of gastritis caused by helicobacter pylori infections.
Before simply agreeing to take medication to solve your gastritis, be sure to talk to your doctor about all the options available to ensure your treatment plan is tailored to the particular gastritis you are experiencing. Proton pump inhibitors, in particular, are not ideal for long-term solutions to chronic gastritis. Especially when taken at high doses, long-term use of these drugs should be done under a doctor’s supervision.
Lifestyle and diet changes are going to be a part of helping to manage your gastritis in many cases. Eliminating or reducing your alcohol consumption is certainly going to be a part of the picture if your chronic gastritis has been caused by excessive alcohol consumption. Similarly, if stress has been the primary source of your gastritis, changing jobs, living situations, or pursuing mental health treatments to manage or lower your stress levels is going to be a priority. This is only a small part of the population, though.
If you have been taking medications that are aggravating the lining of your stomach, it may be time to talk to your doctor about alternative forms of therapy that can help. Long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs is not generally recommended, and even over-the-counter options like ibuprofen can cause damage if used for too long. Always be sure to talk to your doctor about your pain management regimen, as there may be other options available you have not explored.
Talk to Your Doctor About Gastritis
Even if you are not experiencing some of the more dramatic symptoms of gastritis, there is no reason to live with the discomfort of ongoing abdominal pain, nausea and other effects of your gastritis. Given the possibility gastritis could also contribute to the formation of stomach cancer, it is important to seek medical treatment rather than merely treating the symptoms with antacids or other drugs.
There are many potential causes of gastritis, and addressing these causes will only improve your overall health. If you are suffering from chronic stress or an autoimmune condition, your gastritis is only one sign of the damage that is being done to your body. If you think you could have gastritis, make an appointment with Dr. Sameer Islam today. Diagnosing gastroenterological problems can be time-consuming, and getting to the heart of the matter could take time. The sooner you begin the search for an answer to your ongoing discomfort, the sooner you will be on the road to health.