The Basics of Gastroparesis
Seen most often with diabetes, this disorder slows down the digestive process and can cause stomach upset and other issues.
If you find yourself feeling extremely full after eating only a small amount of food, or feeling nauseated and throwing up after eating, don’t brush it off as indigestion or lack of appetite. These could be warning signs of a digestive condition called gastroparesis. While difficult to treat, a special gastroparesis diet can help to control symptoms.
Gastroparesis: What Is It?
Gastroparesis is a disorder in which the stomach empties extremely slowly — a meal that can be digested in about four hours in a healthy person may take days to empty out of the stomach of someone with gastroparesis, says Francisco J. Marrero, MD, a gastroenterologist with the Digestive Disease Institute at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Gastroparesis results when the vagus nerve, which contracts the stomach to squeeze food further down the digestive tract, becomes damaged in some way.
Gastroparesis is an extremely rare condition, affecting only about 10 out of every 100,000 people, according to Dr. Marrero. The condition can be caused by:
- Autoimmune disease
- Neuromuscular disease
- Radiation treatment
Eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia may cause gastroparesis, but digestive function will typically return to normal once food intake returns to normal. Medication may cause similar symptoms, but they are usually only temporary.
Diabetes is one particularly big risk factor for this digestive condition. Long-term diabetes causes abnormalities in the nervous system, which can manifest as numbness and tingling in the fingertips or affect the nervous system in your bowels, says Marrero. High blood glucose, a problem with diabetics, can eventually weaken the vagus nerve.
Gastroparesis: Common Symptoms and Treatment
Beyond feeling full too fast and nausea and vomiting after eating, there are a few more symptoms to be aware of. More signs of gastroparesis include:
- Heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux
- Unexplained weight loss
- Fluctuating levels of blood glucose
- Pain in the top of the abdomen
Not only is gastroparesis difficult to treat and manage, it can’t be cured. But some treatments can help reduce symptoms and discomfort. Treatment options include:
- Medication. Several types of medication can help the stomach to empty food a little faster. These include the antibiotic erythromycin and the gastrointestinal stimulant metoclopramide (Reglan, Maxolon). However, according to Marrero, people quickly become intolerant of the antibiotic, and metoclopramide can have serious side effects. He says doctors are now giving people anti-nausea medication.
- Changing your diet. Diet is one of the more effective ways to manage gastroparesis. Eating smaller, more frequent meals instead of a few large ones can help to alleviate symptoms of gastroparesis. People with serious symptoms may switch to an all-liquid or pureed diet since this may be easier to handle than solid foods. Skipping foods high in fat and fiber is also important in a gastroparesis diet.
- Tube feeding. Patients with severe cases may need to have a tube placed in their small bowel so they can keep down sustenance, notes Marrero. This tube, called a jejunostomy, bypasses the slow-emptying stomach and delivers nutrients directly to the small bowel to offer better nutritional value and fewer symptoms.
- Gastric electric stimulator. This small device is implanted via surgery and emits small pulses of electricity to reduce nausea and vomiting. However, Marrero says these devices are extremely expensive and may not reduce gastroparesis symptoms for everyone.
Gastroparesis is a tough condition to manage and can make eating difficult and uncomfortable. Not every treatment will work for everyone, but there are a variety of methods to try to manage gastroparesis. The type of treatment your doctor will recommend will be based on how severe the symptoms are, and how much pain and discomfort your gastroparesis causes.