By John Steinke, LAc
The gastrointestinal tract has two primary nutritional functions. The stomach, or gastric region, starts the process of digestion, preparing food for assimilation in the small intestines. The intestines sort through the digested components so they can be absorbed into the bloodstream, or passed through the alimentary canal to be excreted. The two primary forms of discomfort resulting from poor digestion are nausea and heartburn. Both conditions can arise from illness, aging, overeating, eating the wrong foods, and excessive consumption of alcohol and soft drinks. They are also commonly seen side-effects of prescription and over-the-counter medicines. While nausea and heartburn are not diseases, they can be symptomatic of different conditions that can accompany or trigger other serious disorders. In addition to addressing the most common causes of gastric upset this article will also review the potential benefits of an enhanced version of one of the most popular digestive herbal formulas used throughout Asia to settle the stomach and promote proper digestion.
Nausea is the queasy sensation in the stomach that is often accompanied by the urge to vomit. Food, alcohol and motion sickness are obvious culprits, but nausea can also be triggered by a host of other causes, many of which do not begin in the stomach itself. Migraine headaches, Meniere’s disease, prescription medications and even common dietary supplements are frequent contributors to nausea symptoms.
Nausea Related to Food, Alcohol and Travel
We’ve all done it before – had too much to eat and drink during the holiday festivities. As a result we experience gastric upset in the form of nausea, vomiting, bloating, gas, belching, dyspepsia (heartburn), diarrhea and general discomfort as our stomach tries to calm down. Toss in travel across time zones and a touch of motion sickness and the problem can become unbearable.
Nausea Related to Food Poisoning
Consuming contaminated or tainted foods is another common factor contributing to gastric upset. According to the Centers for Disease Control, every year approximately 76 million people in the United States get sick from eating contaminated food, and approximately 5,000 of those people will actually die from foodborne illness.
Nausea and Migraines
Migraines are a neurological syndrome characterized by altered bodily perceptions (i.e., visual disturbances or “aura”) and throbbing headaches. Migraine sufferers often experience nausea and vomiting accompanied by a pronounced and extreme sensitivity to light (photophobia), sounds (phonophobia) and odors (osmophobia). In severe attacks, even normal activities such as standing or walking can intensify pain to the point where normal function is completely disrupted. Migraines strike women three times as frequently as men, affecting 5% of men and 17 percent of women in the United States, and an estimated 240 million people worldwide suffer 1.4 billion migraine attacks each year. In spite of these numbers, according to the International Headache Society, many migraines go unrecognized and undertreated due largely to the fact that there are no recognized biological markers to confirm the diagnosis.
While the exact cause of migraine is not fully understood, migraines can be triggered by internal and external factors, such as stress, anxiety, food allergies, hormones and changes in light, heat and altitude. When triggered, the nervous system responds with increased serotonergic activity in the brain, vasodilation of the extracranial blood vessels, and concomitant vasoconstriction of the intracranial blood vessels. Nausea is one of the main physical symptoms frequently seen in migraines, occurring in up to 20 percent of migraine episodes.
While current therapeutic options for migraines are often not effective or are accompanied by troublesome side effects, digestive herbal formulas can be very effective in calming the nausea that occurs with migraines. In my clinical experience, digestive herbal formulas by themselves sometimes eliminated migraine headaches by reducing nausea at the first onset of symptoms. In situations where allergies are leading to migraines, an additional, upper respiratory support herbal formula may help to short-circuit an attack by halting or calming the underlying allergic reaction. Taken together, these formulas may help to prevent or reduce the incidence of episodes while mitigating the headache pain and nausea associated with migraines.
Nausea and Meniere’s Disease
Meniere’s disease is a common disorder characterized by sudden and debilitating attacks of violent vertigo (dizziness) accompanied by fluctuating hearing loss, ear fullness and/or tinnitus and nausea. While the exact cause of Meniere’s is not known, autoimmune reactions, including allergies and migraines, are implicated as triggers that lead to fluctuating pressure changes in endolymph, a fluid in the inner ear. As this fluid accumulates in the inner ear it is thought that excess fluid can burst from its normal channels in the ear and flow into other areas, causing damage.
Nausea is another common symptom in Meniere’s attacks. As with migraines, this symptom does not have a cause in the stomach, but arises from the inner ear, much like motion sickness. While an upper respiratory support formula may help to reduce Meniere’s attacks, digestive herbs may also aid in alleviating the nausea that does occur with full-blown episodes.
Nausea and Medications
Gastric upset and nausea are common side effects of a large number of medications (for an extensive list of over 3,900 prescription and OTC medications that can cause nausea, visit: http://www.wrongdiagnosis. com/symptoms/nausea/sideeffects. htm). The problem is particularly pronounced when one has to take more than one medication at the same time. In my practice digestive herbal formulas have proven to be a safe option to mitigate or reduce the nausea occurring from medications.
Heartburn and Gastric Acid
Heartburn, acid reflux, dyspepsia – all are names for the painful, burning discomfort experienced as stomach acid backs up into the esophagus and irritates sensitive tissues. Gastroesophageal reflux, or GER, is a common, occasional symptom that everyone experiences from time to time. Of a more severe nature, GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disorder, is a chronic, persistent problem often accompanied by dry cough, asthma symptoms and difficulty swallowing. If the situation is left unresolved, GERD can lead to more serious health problems.
Digestive herbal formulas can be very helpful in diminishing the symptoms of heartburn, and may interrupt the progression of acid reflux into more serious disorders. This is illustrated in the following letter sent to us by a naturopathic doctor who frequently recommends digestive herbal formulas to his patients.
“I recently treated a 50-year-old male for a second recurrence of GERD. Various medications and supplements had helped somewhat. When I placed him on your digestive herbal formula, 2 capsules, 3 times daily, over the course of about five weeks he was able to eliminate his medications and most of his other supplements. He has also returned to eating regular foods with no ill effects. He now takes your digestive herbal formula as needed for occasional rare flare-ups upon overeating.”
Sleep Apnea Linked to “Silent Reflux”
Incidence of nighttime acid reflux has been linked with significant sleep disruptions, according to a survey presented at the 72nd Annual Scientific Meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology. Researchers at the University of Arizona have found that sleep impairment occurs more than twice as frequently in people with GERD (42 percent) than those without GERD (20 percent). These findings confirm a previous study of 81 patients with documented sleep complaints. Of those with reflux, 94 percent reported that acid reflux interrupted their sleep. Based on this study, William C. Orr, Ph.D. of Lynn Health Science Institute in Oklahoma City speculated that “Silent reflux” may be a significant cause of sleep disturbances in patients with unexplained sleep disorders. In another sleep study presented by researchers at Duke University Medical Center, gastric reflux was found to be common and frequently severe in 168 patients undergoing sleep studies for sleep apnea. These patients had frequent daytime and nighttime heartburn symptoms. Those with sleep apnea reported much lower quality of life on a selfadministered questionnaire.
By helping to alleviate acid reflux during the day and at night, digestive herbal formulas may significantly improve the quality of sleep and thereby also quality of life.
GERD Linked to Asthma
Studies have shown that anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of patients with asthma also experience some aspect of GERD. For asthmatics, digestive herbal formulas may help to reduce the frequency with which they experience heartburn. Interestingly, new research shows that controlling heartburn may also contribute to a reduced incidence of asthma.
In laboratory experiments with mice, Dr. Shu Lin, an assistant professor of surgery and immunology at Duke University, has found that inhaling tiny amounts of stomach fluid that have backed up into the esophagus – a hallmark of GERD – can led to changes in the immune system that can contribute to the development of asthma. Dr. Lin suggests that by reducing gastric reflux, people with GERD can lessen their chances of developing asthma. She recommends that people with heartburn eat smaller meals, have their last meal of the day several hours before going to bed, raise the head of their bed a few inches, maintain a healthy weight and limit intake of fatty foods, coffee, tea, caffeine and alcohol.
Current, advanced digestive herbal formulas are enhanced versions of “Pill Curing,” one of the most popular digestive remedies used daily by millions of people throughout the world. The formula I have been working with is an enhanced version of this traditional formula, with the addition of Hawthorn fruit (Fructus Crataegi) to aid in the digestion of meats and fat. The new formula also includes Pueraria flower to reduce reactions to alcohol consumption. This gentle, balanced herbal formula supports rapid relief to alleviate nausea, vomiting, belching and excessive stomach acid. And in cases of gastrointestinal distress accompanying the flu or common cold, the herbal formula may be combined with an immuno-supportive herbal formula.
Digestive herbal formulas are also perfect for those experiencing occasional stomach upset resulting from overeating and consuming alcohol, and offers relief for those experiencing queasiness or stomach distress related to new foods and/or motion sickness [car, plane, train, boat, etc.]. The formula is a very useful remedy for improving digestion and resolving the two most common types of digestive disorders – nausea and heartburn. Because nausea and heartburn are common discomforts that appear with – and may trigger – other conditions, the formula may aid in resolving other health issues related to gastric distress. Please note that digestive herbal formulas are not recommend for use for nausea during pregnancy.