Think Age Is Causing Your Heartburn, Bloat or Other Digestive Issues? Think Again.

woman with heartburn

It seems the older we get, the less we can depend on our bodies to act as expected. Our bones creak and crack more than they used to, it takes days to recover from a night out and is it just our imagination, or do foods that we’ve always eaten suddenly not sit so well?

Amy Braddock, MD
Amy Braddock, MD

“You aren’t crazy to think that some foods now affect you differently,” says Dr. Amy Braddock, a family medicine doctor at MU Health Care. You might be dealing with food or drink sensitivity, unexpected weight fluctuations or acid reflux. And although these symptoms may develop as you get older, they aren’t usually a direct result of aging.

“With lifestyle changes, stress and several other factors, how foods affect us can change over time,” Dr. Braddock says. “Foods you used to be able to eat or that didn't impact your weight might begin to affect you differently as you get older.”

The good news is you aren’t necessarily stuck with these digestive issues. Aging by itself, isn’t responsible for your stomach issues. No matter how many birthday candles top your cake, there are ways to identify the cause and improve your symptoms.

Dr. Braddock recommends taking these steps:

Keep a log to identify food intolerance

How your body reacts to the food and drinks you consume can change at any time — manifesting as a food intolerance or even a new food allergy.

“We worry a lot about food allergies and children, but really, you can develop food allergies or intolerances at any age,” Dr. Braddock says.

A true food allergy is an immune response. You’ll likely notice it quickly — the symptoms are severe and may include hives, trouble breathing, swelling and difficulty swallowing.

Food intolerance or sensitivity, which affects 20% of the population, can be more challenging to recognize because they happen over time and can be pretty mild. It happens when your body can’t break down a particular food or ingredient, causing gastrointestinal (GI) issues, such as:

  • Diarrhea
  • Gas and bloating
  • Heartburn (resulting from acid reflux)
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Stomach pain

The best way to identify food sensitivity is to write down everything you eat. Make a note of when you eat and drink and any adverse reactions. Common intolerances include alcohol, gluten and lactose (sugar in dairy products).

Try an elimination diet to relieve digestive symptoms

Once you’ve identified what you think is a troubling food, remove it from your diet for a couple of weeks and see if your symptoms improve. You can do this in two ways:

  1. Eliminate one item at a time and see if symptoms improve
  2. Eliminate all of the foods you think could be causing your symptoms for two to three weeks and then slowly reintroduce each food every two to three days to see if symptoms come back.

The process can be time-consuming, upwards of five to six weeks. But once you realize you’re sensitive to food like garlic, caffeine or dairy, you can avoid that item (or have it in moderation) and find relief.

“I’ve had a number of patients have improvement in their symptoms once they determine what they need to avoid,” says Dr. Braddock, “For patients who have been suffering for a long time, it can be a big deal.”

Food intolerances can change over time, so even if you haven’t had problems with a food in the past, consider testing it to see if your symptoms improve.

If you plan to eliminate a large number of food groups or are concerned you may have a food allergy, talk to your doctor before trying the elimination and reintroduction method.

Take over-the-counter medication to manage acid reflux

Acid reflux is a common GI issue — up to one-third of American adults report experiencing reflux at least once a week. Reflux happens when stomach acid comes up into your esophagus (the tube that carries what you eat and drink down to your stomach). It’s more likely to happen when your stomach is full after eating and can cause heartburn — a burning feeling in your chest and throat. If your acid reflux is chronic (happening at least twice a week for several weeks), you may be diagnosed with gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), which affects 20% of American adults.

“Acid reflux is very common during pregnancy,” Dr. Braddock says. “But over time, other causes make women prone to acid reflux, such as diet changes, eating quickly, stress, weight increase and less exercise. All those factors contribute to increased acid reflux as we age.”

She recommends elevating your head at bedtime if you get reflux at night and trying over-the-counter medication, such as Tums, to manage the symptoms of reflux and heartburn during the day. But keep track of how often you need to take them and what might’ve triggered it to see if it’s food intolerance. If the symptoms persist longer than a few weeks or are severe, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Evaluate your lifestyle

Growing responsibilities at home and work can strain your time and energy as you age. Suddenly those habits that keep our bodies functioning well — such as eating healthy, exercising and getting adequate sleep — end up on the back burner.

“Changes to our health behaviors, medical conditions and environmental factors commonly cause the weight-related shifts we see in our 20s, 30s and 40s,” Dr. Braddock says. And research links weight gain, stress and mental health issues with an increase in GI symptoms and conditions. Taking steps to address those issues can impact your digestive health.

Dr. Braddock also recommends noticing how much you sit during the day and after meals. “Even small amounts of standing and walking can eliminate or improve a lot of GI symptoms,” she says. “Being more active is especially helpful with bloating and constipation. Try going for a short walk after a meal to help.”

Watch for signs of a more severe condition

Mild symptoms of digestive distress are typical. But there are “red flag” symptoms that require immediate medical evaluation, such as:

  • Blood in your stool
  • Distended or swollen abdomen that doesn’t go away
  • Severe or persistent stomach pain
  • Worsening heartburn
  • Persistent nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Stomach pain that radiates to your shoulder or back

You should also consult with your doctor if you notice a combination of several digestive symptoms or sudden weight gain or loss. “There are medical conditions that can increase your weight and make women prone to other digestive issues, like thyroid disorder or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS),” Dr. Braddock says. “It’s always a good idea to touch base with your doctor whenever any new symptoms arise, especially if they persist more than a few weeks.”


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