After eating dinner and finally mustering up the energy to get to the library, you’re about ready to start studying. And that’s when it happens.
You feel the stomach pains coming on, along with the uncomfortable queasiness that has you running for the nearest ladies’ room. How can you tell if you’re experiencing a common stomachache or if it’s a sign of something more? We spoke with Shanti Eswaran, a clinical lecturer from the Division of Gastroenterology at the University of Michigan, to uncover what’s really behind your symptoms.
Tummy troubles may spring up for a variety of reasons, and so it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what’s behind it all. Did I eat something bad? Am I too stressed? What about food allergies?
First, Eswaran advises collegiettes to pay attention to when and how frequently the stomach problems happen. Your typical stomachache will be short-lived and usually involves cramps and a dull aching in the abdomen. Taking an antacid, such as TUMS ($3.97 at Walmart) will help to quickly ease the uncomfortable symptoms.
It’s one thing to experience an upset stomach every once in awhile. However, if it becomes reoccurring, your symptoms worsen or it begins to disrupt your daily activity, that should signal a trip to the doctor’s office, because you may have one of the below conditions.
1. Irritable Bowel Syndrome
It might seem awkward to talk about, but irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is more common than you’d think, and many people deal with it on a daily basis. You’re not alone and you shouldn’t feel embarrassed to get the help you need! According to Eswaran, IBS is the most common gastrointestinal (GI) problem, affecting more women than men. IBS usually develops in early adulthood, but it will come and go throughout a person’s lifetime.
Although symptoms vary from person to person, they can include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea or constipation for prolonged periods of time. It is diagnosed when a person has had stomach pain or discomfort at least three times a month for the past three months.
The exact cause of IBS is still unknown, but Eswaran says there is a primary link between the condition and stress. “We know that stress does play a big role,” she says. “There is a huge mind and gut interaction… some people may manifest their stress in a headache, and others may manifest it in bellyaches.”
While stress management is a huge component of treating IBS, Eswaran says that medication can be a viable complementary option. “We use anti-depressants to treat both stress levels and IBS itself. If you treat the nerves in the brain, you’re also treating the nerves in the gut with the same medication,” she says. “The medicine helps to decrease nerve sensitivity in the belly, and people can start to feel better that way.”
Katie, a junior from Johns Hopkins University, says she decided to visit her school’s student health center to address recurrent symptoms, which resulted in her IBS diagnosis. “I knew it was something more than regular stomachaches when I started having symptoms every day and no over-the-counter medicine helped, like pain relievers [or] antacids,” she says.
IBS flares up differently for everyone. As part of the treatment process, Katie sticks to a vegan diet because she found that fatty, greasy foods worsened her symptoms. Along with adjusting her diet, she uses antidepressants to keep her anxiety at bay, which seems to be helping with her IBS symptoms.
2. Celiac disease
Have you ever noticed the signs in the cafeteria pointing out gluten-free options? Although some collegiettes decide to go gluten-free by choice, others are gluten intolerant as a result of Celiac disease.
“[Celiac disease] is an inflammatory condition of the small intestines that is trigged by gluten exposure, which is a protein that is found in wheat products,” Eswaran says.
Eswaran explains that collegiettes with Celiac disease will experience digestive difficulties when consuming gluten, which can result in abdominal bloating, pain and diarrhea. They may also notice weight loss and iron deficiency anemia.
Much like IBS, if the symptoms happen often and begin to interfere with your schoolwork or normal day-to-day activities, you should visit a health care professional. It’s never a good idea to ignore what’s happening or assume that it’s just another stomachache! “If a student is having persistent problems, they should see somebody and not try to think of it as just being from stress, from something you ate, or from going to the bar that weekend,” Eswaran says.
Simple enough, treatment involves eliminating gluten from your diet. “If [students] have to be gluten-free and they have been educated on what that means, as well as meeting with a registered dietician and not trying to do it on their own, it’s usually fine,” Eswaran says.
However, it might seem like a daunting task to avoid gluten because it is found in wheat, rye, and barley products, which include flour, pasta, bread, cookies, cereal, beer, rice, etc. But don’t let that scare you! There are still plenty of delicious options for gluten-free collegiettes. Whole Foods offers a gluten-free products list, which is helpful and convenient.
Maggie, a junior at the College of the Holy Cross, originally thought she had acid reflux and common stomachaches, but it turned out to be gluten intolerance. “After reading Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis, I decided to try giving up wheat for a little while,” she says. “The results weren't immediate, but within the first month, I had more energy than ever and my headaches and stomachaches had completely subsided…[and] when I explained my change in diet to my doctor, she diagnosed me as gluten intolerant. Giving up gluten completely changed my life and I am so happy that I decided to take matters into my own hands and do some research… [it] led me to a complete lifestyle change and I have never felt better.”
3. Crohn’s disease
According to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America, as many as 700,000 Americans are living with Crohn’s disease, and although the disease can occur at any age, people between the ages of 15 and 35 are more likely to become diagnosed.
According to Eswaran, Crohn’s is under the umbrella of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It is considered a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract. When you have Crohn’s, your body’s immune system attacks healthy bacteria in the GI tract, which causes inflammation and discomfort.
The causes of the condition are still unclear, but diet, stress, genetics and environmental factors can all contribute to developing Crohn’s disease. Symptoms are very similar to IBS and Celiac disease, which includes nausea, pain, bloating and diarrhea. After six to eight weeks of reoccurring symptoms, Eswaran recommends seeking help from a gastroenterology specialist.
Unlike the dietary changes necessary for managing Celiac disease, controlling Crohn’s involves medication. Anti-inflammatory drugs can help lessen the symptoms and are generally used for IBD. Immune system suppressors also help lessen inflammation.
After receiving a diagnosis, it’s important to stay on top of your treatment to make sure that the disease doesn’t flare up down the road. “The importance of consistent follow-up with a healthcare provider and medication compliance is really crucial and can’t be understated,” Eswaran says.
4. Lactose intolerance
“Lactose intolerance is not an allergy, but it’s your body’s inability to digest the sugar lactose in dairy products,” Eswaran says. “It’s a dependent thing, so if you have a lot of lactose, you’ll (experience) a lot of symptoms. If you don’t eat dairy, you probably won’t have any symptoms.”
It’s possible to be born with lactose intolerance, but you can also develop intolerance to lactose when your body decreases lactase production and is unable to break down the sugar in lactose.
If you’re lactose intolerant, you may experience bloating, abdominal pain and nausea after dairy consumption. If you are unaware of your lactose intolerance, you may confuse it for a common stomachache. However, the symptoms depend on your dairy intake.
Madeline Lacey, a junior at the University of Michigan, realized that she was lactose intolerant during her freshman year of college. She tries to adjust her diet, but claims that it can be hard to completely eliminate dairy.
“Honestly, I'm the worst lactose intolerant [person] ever,” Madeline says. “I love cheese, but then I'll complain about a stomachache 30 minutes later. I have tried going dairy-free and vegan just for kicks. On a normal day, I try to limit [myself to] only one meal with cheese or milk in it. I also take digestive pills that contain the lactose enzyme in it. Those help for everything but ice cream.”
Avoiding dairy will help keep the symptoms at bay, but you can also try Lactaid pills to help break down the sugar in dairy. You should take it with the first bite of dairy for it to be the most effective. This way, you can enjoy your favorite yogurt or milkshake without feeling an upset stomach afterwards!
If you’re a dairy junkie, you don’t have to say goodbye forever! There are many natural dairy alternatives made from rice, soy or almonds. Silk offers everything from soy and coconut milk to the classic almond milk. And chances are you won’t even notice the difference!
For all of these conditions, it’s important to stay consistent with treatment and look out for flare-ups. “All of these are chronic [conditions], meaning that it is something that you aren’t going to grow out of... you’ll treat them and you might feel better, but without consistent treatment it might kick back worse than it did before,” Eswaran says.
It’s normal to feel sick to your stomach before a final exam or get butterflies when you see your favorite campus cutie. But when the symptoms interfere with your everyday life, it becomes a different story! If you’re not sure why you’re experiencing stomach problems, it’s best to speak with a doctor to make sure that something bigger isn’t happening under the surface.