Preventing and Addressing Tummy aches
Belly aches are a common aliment for many children and can be difficult and upsetting for the parents. Though there are some cases where stomach aches in children should be evaluated immediately, the majority of stomach aches in children are not emergency conditions. One study showed recurrent abdominal pain to occur in as much as fifteen percent of school aged children. Ten percent of these cases were attributed to indigestion or constipation. Five percent of these cases were given no diagnosis at the doctor’s office, with speculation that stress was the cause. Chronic tummy pain in children is quite common and the solutions are often an opportunity to improve the child’s overall health.
“Gut instinct” is a common saying acknowledging the connection with the brain and nervous system to the digestive system. The human body has a large network of nerves in the digestive tract, almost as much as a second brain. This major network of nerves explains how chronic stress can affect not just the nervous system, but also upset a tummy as well.
Complaining of an upset belly, in absence of other digestive symptoms, may likely be a sign that a child is upset or stressed. Though it can seem frustrating from a parent’s perspective, this complaint is an excellent opportunity for parents to offer coping skills for stress and lifestyle changes to help reduce the physical manifestations of stress. Exercise is a wonderful way to support healthy digestion and reduce stress. Finding an activity that is not only good exercise but something that makes the child happy is the best fit for stress reduction. Another good outlet for stress is communication with family or friends, offering them an opportunity to discuss their feelings and concerns. Good nutrition can offer important vitamins and minerals for healthy neurotransmitters and also support balanced blood sugar. Elevated or low blood sugar levels could put unnecessary stress on the body and contribute to nervous upset tummies in children.
Much like a nervous stomach can offer opportunity to teach a child about stress reduction, constipation is an opportunity to evaluate the ecology of a child’s digestive tract. For healthy bowel function, children need several things. Good nutrition with ample vegetables and fruits offering fiber and vitamins. Inadequate water intake is often the cause of constipation in children. Fruit juices and soft drinks should be kept to a minimum, with water as the beverage of choice. Probiotics which are bacteria found naturally in the digestive tract, can also support healthy bowel movements. These helpful bacteria may need to be supplemented, as medications and poor nutrition can reduce the population in the colon. Food allergies may also be a potential cause for constipation or diarrhea in children and can be evaluated with specialized diets or blood tests.
Heartburn or a sour stomach after eating may be a red flag that a child is not digesting foods properly and may be a cause for chronic belly aches. Proper eating habits should be evaluated to ensure the child is taking time to chew properly and not rush. Food allergies can also be a cause of heartburn or acid reflux in children, and can be evaluated by a physician.
Hearing the phrase “my tummy hurts” on a regular basis is an opportunity to explore what lessons the child is ready to learn, whether it is in stress reduction or improved nutrition and lifestyle choices. Evaluation with a physician will help determine the cause of chronic stomach pain, and making lifestyle changes in childhood may improve lifelong health and prevent more serious conditions in adulthood.
Dr. Lauren Young is a naturopathic physician with a family practice in Hartford Hospital Wellness Center in Avon. For more information, contact her at Whole Health Associates, (860)674-0111 or visit www.wholehealthllc.com. See ad on page .