Gastritis isn’t one disease but a group of conditions, all of which are characterized by inflammation of the lining of your stomach.

What is it?

Commonly, inflammation of the stomach results from a infection with the same bacterium that causes most stomach ulcers. Yet other factors — including traumatic injury and regular use of certain pain relievers — also can contribute to gastritis.

In spite of the many conditions associated with gastritis, the signs and symptoms of the disease are very similar: A burning pain in your upper abdomen and occasionally, bloating, belching, nausea or vomiting.

In some cases, gastritis can lead to ulcers and an increased risk of stomach cancer. For most people, however, gastritis isn’t serious and improves quickly with treatment.

What causes it?

Your stomach — a hollow, muscular sac — sits in the upper left corner of your abdomen, just under your rib cage. The typical adult stomach is around 10 inches long and can expand to hold about 1 gallon of food and liquid. When your stomach is empty, its tissues fold in on themselves, a bit like a closed accordion. As your stomach fills and expands, the folds gradually disappear.

Your stomach processes and stores food, which it gradually releases into your small intestine. When food arrives from your oesophagus, a muscular ring at the joining of your oesophagus and stomach (lower esophageal sphincter) relaxes to let it in. Your stomach walls, lined with layers of powerful muscles, then begin churning the food, mixing it into smaller and smaller pieces. At the same time, glands in the wall of your stomach pump out gastric juices — including enzymes and stomach acids — that help break food down further.

One of these, hydrochloric acid, is so caustic that it can dissolve iron nails. Your stomach’s tissues are protected from this corrosive acid by the mucous-bicarbonate barrier — a layered buffering system in which bicarbonate regulates the stomach’s acid-alkaline balance, and mucous provides a thick, sticky coating for the stomach walls.

Gastritis usually develops when these and other protective mechanisms are overwhelmed, damaging and inflaming your stomach lining. Some of the many factors that can contribute to or trigger gastritis include:

  • Bacterial infection
  • Regular use of pain relievers
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Cocaine use
  • Stress
  • Autoimmune disorder
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Radiation and chemotherapy
  • Bile reflux disease

What are the symptoms?

  • A gnawing or burning ache or pain (indigestion) in your upper abdomen that may become either worse or better when you eat
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Belching or bloating
  • A feeling of fullness in your upper abdomen after eating
  • Weight loss

Are there any natural therapies?

  • A bitter herbal tonic containing herbs such as Gentian and Dandelion will help to balance your stomach’s production of digestive acids.
  • Slippery Elm can help soothe the inflamed membranes of the stomach lining.
  • Probiotic supplements containing Acidophilus and Bifidus will help to restore balance to digestive flora.
  • Chamomile tea may soothe irritation and inflammation.

What else can I do?

Although you can’t always prevent food poisoning, these suggestions can help reduce your risk of gastritis:

  • Eat smart. If you experience frequent indigestion, eat smaller, more frequent meals to buffer stomach acid secretion. In addition, avoid any foods you find irritating, especially those that are spicy, acidic, fried or fatty.
  • Limit or avoid alcohol. Excessive use of alcohol can irritate and erode the mucous lining of your stomach, causing inflammation and bleeding.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking interferes with the protective lining of the stomach, making your stomach more susceptible to gastritis as well as ulcers. Smoking also increases stomach acid, delays stomach healing and is a leading risk factor for stomach cancer. Still, quitting isn’t easy, especially if you’ve smoked for years. Talk to your doctor about methods that may help you stop smoking.
  • Switch pain relievers. If possible, avoid taking NSAIDs — aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen. These over-the-counter medications can cause stomach inflammation or make existing irritation worse. Instead, switch to pain relievers containing acetaminophen.
  • Follow your doctor’s recommendations. Your doctor may recommend that you take an over-the-counter antacid or acid blocker to help prevent recurring gastritis.

Did you know?

The most significant risk factor for gastritis is infection with H. pylori bacteria. In the United States, one in five people younger than 40 and half of people older than 60 are infected. The numbers are much greater in developing nations.