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Digestive Disorders: Foods That Help or Hurt Tummy Cramps

  • Reviewed By: Jennifer Robinson, MD
Reviewed on 2/14/2018

Foods for Relief

Food choices can affect abdominal cramps.

When you have cramps, chances are you want relief fast. Turns out, what you put on your plate can make a big difference in how you feel. The right foods and drinks may help ease the pain, but others can make it worse.

Foods That Hurt: Greasy Foods

Fatty greasy foods take longer to digest and may contribute to cramps.

If you have stomach pain, pass on the cheeseburger and fries. Fat takes longer for your body to digest, and it may make your intestines tighten up and cause cramps. High-fat foods may also make irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) worse. That's a gut condition that affects as many as 1 in 6 people. It can cause bloating, pain, constipation, and diarrhea.

Foods That Hurt: Dairy Products

Symptoms of lactose intolerance include pain, bloating, and nausea.

Too much dairy can trigger stomach cramps for some people. That's because it has a type of sugar called lactose, and many people don't make enough of the enzyme that digests it. That can cause stomach pain, bloating, and nausea within a couple of hours after eating. You may need to cut back on milk, cheese, or other dairy foods, or you can eat lactose-free versions or take an enzyme supplement.

Drinks That Hurt: Coffee and Tea

Caffeine consumption may lead to dehydration, which can make cramps and muscle tightness worse.

If you have stomach pain often, you may need to cut back on coffee, tea, and other caffeinated beverages. Caffeine acts as a diuretic, so you pee more often. That may make you more likely to get dehydrated. Caffeine can also rev up your nerves and make your muscles tighten up. Both of those can set the stage for cramps.

Foods That Hurt: Hot Peppers

Capsaicin in hot peppers may make stomach pain and upset worse.

For many people, spicy foods and an upset stomach don't mix. Chili peppers have stuff called capsaicin. Not only does it make your mouth burn, but it may also turn on nerves in your gut and make your cramps worse. Case in point: Research shows that people with IBS had more pain after eating a spicy meal made with chili peppers.

Food That Hurts: High-Fiber Cereal

Increase fiber intake gradually to minimize the risk of stomach upset.

A high-fiber diet is usually a good thing. It can help prevent weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease. But a sudden uptick can set off stomach cramps or make them worse. Your body needs time to get used to digesting the rough stuff. Add 3-5 grams of fiber a week to your diet until you reach the recommended 25-35 grams a day.

Foods That Hurt: High-Sodium Foods

Excess sodium consumption may lead to electrolyte imbalance, cramps, and bloating.

Nine out of 10 Americans get too much salt. That can throw off the balance of electrolytes, which are minerals that help your muscles work the right way. When you have too much, your body may be more likely to cramp up. It can also make you bloated. Most of our sodium comes from store-bought and restaurant foods. Check labels at the grocery store for sodium, and cook at home more often.

Food That Helps: Mint

Peppermint capsules help alleviate stomach pain and IBS symptoms.

Peppermint doesn't just freshen your breath. According to one study, peppermint oil capsules helped with stomach pain and other symptoms in people with IBS. It's OK to drink peppermint tea, but only the capsules have been shown to work. But skip it if you have heartburn, as peppermint can make that worse. Talk to your doctor before you start any supplements.

Food That Helps: Ginger

Ginger decreases inflammation, improves menstrual cramps, and aids digestion.

This plant root tamps down inflammation in the body. This may help ease stomach and menstrual cramps. Scientists found that taking a ginger supplement during the first 3-4 days of your period can lower menstrual pain. Add fresh or dried ginger to your stir-fries and sauces. Or brew a tea with fresh ginger.

Drink That Hurts: Alcohol

Alcohol can exacerbate pain, dehydration, and cramps.

If you have menstrual cramps, you may want to stay away from booze. That's because alcohol can make the pain last longer. It's a diuretic, so you pee more often. This can set the stage for dehydration, which can make cramps worse. Plus, too much alcohol can lower your blood sugar, so you may feel crankier than usual.

Food That Helps: Tofu

Calcium-rich tofu helps muscles work properly and may alleviate cramps.

Research shows that calcium can ease menstrual pain. That may be because the mineral helps muscle cells work properly. Like milk, yogurt, and other dairy products, tofu packs lots of calcium. Half a cup of firm tofu has enough to meet a quarter of your daily needs. Other good sources include fortified orange juice and cereal.

Digestive Disorders: Foods That Help or Hurt Tummy Cramps

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