Indigestion, tummy troubles, gastrointestinal distress — whatever you call it, most of us have suffered through it at some point. However, if it's something that occurs regularly, you may have a sensitive stomach.
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A number of symptoms can be associated with a sensitive stomach — including gas, bloating, nausea, reflux, constipation, vomiting and diarrhea. And oftentimes, an underlying food intolerance can be the culprit behind a sensitive stomach, per a 2006 study in Best Practice & Research, Clinical Gastroenterology.
Food intolerances are typically caused by enzymatic defects in the digestive system, which for you non-science nerds out there, means you could be lacking an enzyme needed to digest certain foods. This can cause all sorts of uncomfortable symptoms.
Breakfast can be a particularly problematic time for those with a sensitive stomach because, unlike other meals, we typically eat breakfast on an empty stomach after hours of sleep. As a result, we may be more sensitive to the foods we eat.
While there is no "one size fits all" recommendation because individuals are, well, individuals, we're dishing out the top five foods to avoid if you have a sensitive stomach, plus alternative recommendations that will satisfy your hunger and never sacrifice nutrition, flavor or variety.
If you have a sensitive stomach, dietitian and chef Julie Harrington, RD, says that your morning cup of joe is not the best beverage to drink on an empty stomach.
"Because there is nothing to compete with absorption, caffeine on an empty stomach can magnify the stimulating effects. Coffee relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, which can allow acids to enter and cause secretion of the gastric fluids," she explains.
Here's why this is so important: Your esophagus is the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach, and your esophageal sphincter seals the stomach from the esophagus. If it is relaxed, this allows the stomach juices — which are highly acidic — to flow backward, causing reflux, aka heartburn.
Read more: Can Coffee Cause Gas and an Upset Stomach?
The Fix: Instead, Harrington recommends filling your morning mug with chamomile tea. Not only does it help keep you hydrated, but chamomile has also been known to help ease indigestion, gas and nausea.
Coffee lovers can breathe a sigh of relief, though — you don't have to give up your morning coffee completely! Simply enjoy that pumpkin spice or matcha latte later on in the morning, once you've eaten breakfast.
2. Fatty Foods
Many foods high in fat may stimulate contractions in the digestive tract, leading to gastrointestinal distress. This can show up in one of two ways: Fatty foods can slow down the emptying of the stomach, making constipation worse — or could speed up the movement, leading to diarrhea.
Included in this category are fried foods, which often move rapidly through the digestive tract, causing diarrhea — or which stay in your GI tract too long, causing bloating and discomfort. The type of fat you eat and your tendency toward diarrhea or constipation all play a role in which symptom(s) you may experience.
The Fix: To help prevent indigestion at breakfast, avoid high-fat culprits, like butter, bacon and cheese. Instead, choose lower-fat options, such as eggs, and include healthy, unsaturated fats like avocado, nuts and seeds.
Scrambled eggs paired with sliced avocado and some fruit is a great way to start the day. "If breakfast sandwiches are one of your go-to morning meals, simply rethink the layers," Harrington says. "Instead of egg, bacon and cheese on a croissant, try egg and mashed avocado on a whole-grain English muffin."
For some, dairy products can wreak havoc on the digestive tract. Lactose intolerance — a type of food sensitivity — is the result of not having enough lactase, the enzyme responsible for digesting lactose, which is the natural sugar in milk.
Lactase breaks lactose down into glucose and galactose in the small intestine. When there isn't enough lactase, lactose is able to reach the colon largely intact, where bacteria feed on this sugar and cause physical symptoms like gas, cramps, bloating and diarrhea — especially if you eat and drink too much dairy at one time.
Lactose intolerance exists on different levels. According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 65 percent of the human population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy, to varying degrees.
Some people can tolerate more dairy than others without any symptoms. If you are sensitive to dairy and trying to find a comfortable limit, stick with smaller portions and gradually increase the amount you eat until you notice symptoms.
The Fix: The good news is that there are dairy and dairy-free substitutes that are just as tasty. Aged hard cheeses, such as cheddar, Swiss and parmesan, typically have no lactose and tend to be better tolerated. Reduced-lactose and lactose-free dairy products, as well as Lactaid pills, are all widely available in grocery stores.
Fermented dairy, such as yogurt and kefir, are also great options. Sometimes a sensitive stomach may be the result of dysbiosis, which is a gut imbalance, per a 2018 study in Experientia Supplementum. Essentially, dysbiosis means that the bad bacteria in your body is overgrown, and there isn't enough good bacteria to balance it out.
Foods rich in probiotics, or bacteria that is good for the gut, may help reduce symptoms. Just be sure to choose sources containing "live and active cultures" or "probiotics," which are the good bacteria that help keep your gut healthy.
If you're looking for dairy-free options, there are many great selections in the grocery store these days. Almond milk, oat milk and soy milk are all readily available, plant-based alternatives.
4. Sugar Alcohols, Artificial Sugar and Refined Sugars
Excessive amounts of sugar alcohols as well as artificial and refined sugars have been associated with digestive problems.
Sorbitol, a sugar alcohol, is also found naturally in some fruits (such as peaches, apples and prunes) and natural juices (like apple juice, pear juice and peach juice) may cause digestive distress in some people.
Artificial sugar, such as sucralose, is used to add sweetness without adding sugar or calories and is often found in sugar-free varieties of candy, pastries and soda. Eating artificial sugars can lead to gas, bloating, cramps and diarrhea because we can't properly digest them.
If you hit the sugar bowl hard for your morning cup of joe, high levels of refined sugar can lead to spikes in insulin levels, which causes fluctuations in blood sugar. While this may not directly cause gastrointestinal distress, it may make you feel clammy and shaky. In some instances, it may lead to excessive diarrhea.
The Fix: Instead of artificial and refined sugars at the breakfast table, look to natural sources of sugar in the form of fruit, plain Greek yogurt and whole grains. Top Greek yogurt with pineapple and papaya — they both contain bromelain, which aids digestion, helping to relieve uncomfortable symptoms.
If you regularly add sugar (artificial or refined) to your morning routine, look to pure maple syrup or maple sugar as a sweet alternative. Maple syrup contains antioxidants and other important nutrients, like riboflavin, zinc, magnesium, calcium and potassium. In particular, magnesium helps to reduce gastric acid secretion, helping to reduce uncomfortable symptoms.
5. Hard-to-Digest, High-Fiber Foods
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 25 grams of fiber daily for women and 38 grams for men. Fiber is fickle though; eat too much too quickly without adequate fluids — and without an adjustment period — and you'll likely experience gas and bloating. Eat too little fiber and you can become constipated, causing a different type of digestive distress.
Some common high-fiber foods that may create unwanted gas include beans, cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower), whole wheat products and some fruits (like pears, apples, peaches and prunes).
The Fix: Oatmeal is a wonderful source of whole grains and soluble fiber, which encourages digestion. Pair it with healthy fats like nuts and seeds, and fruit like a banana for increased stomach-soothing benefits.
Nuts and seeds are rich in fiber, which is important for overall gut health and keeping you regular, while bananas contain pectin, which helps to naturally initiate bowel movements.
If you love having toast in the morning, sourdough bread is a great option. Sourdough is fermented, and therefore an excellent source of probiotics and typically easier to digest than some other options, per an October 2009 Food Microbiology study.
Treating a sensitive stomach can be tricky, but it doesn’t have to keep you down. Stay attuned to your body and what it may be telling you. If your gastrointestinal distress becomes painful or a daily occurrence, please see a physician or registered dietitian.
- Best Practice & Research, Clinical Gastroenterology: “Food Allergies and Food Intolerances”
- National Institutes of Health: “Lactose Intolerance”
- Food Microbiology: “Sourdough and Cereal Fermentation in a Nutritional Perspective”
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Easy Ways to Boost Fiber in Your Daily Diet”
- Experientia Supplementum: "Microbiome and Gut Dysbiosis"