Gastroparesis is a condition that prevents stomach muscles from working properly, which prevents the stomach from digesting food completely. The vagus nerve controls the movement of food through the digestive tract, which is composed of the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. In cases where the vagus nerve becomes damaged, gastroparesis can occur.
So, what's the most common cause of vagus nerve damage? Diabetes. Chronic high blood sugar levels eventually can eventually damage the vagus nerve, resulting in poor digestion because ingested food doesn't move through the digestive tract normally. Food often remains in the stomach or intestines longer than it should, and the body doesn't efficiently absorb nutrients.
In most cases, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), the most common symptoms of gastroparesis include nausea, vomiting undigested food as well as feeling full after eating only a small meal. Other symptoms may include the following:
- Appetite loss
- Abdomen bloating
- Gastroesophageal reflux
- Stomach pain
Gastroparesis can lead to other complications, which are related to inefficient digestion.
Harder-to-control blood sugar.Because gastroparesis causes food to be digested inconsistently, sugar enters the blood erratically.
Weight loss and malnutrition.The body doesn't absorb nutrients in a normal fashion due to gastroparesis. This can cause unintended and unsafe weight loss, as well as malnutrition.>
Intestinal blockages. Undigested food trapped in the digestive tract can solidify and cause potentially life-threatening blockages.
The various treatments for gastroparesis depend on the severity of the disease and the advice of your doctor. Treatments include medications, changed eating habits and surgery.
Eating habits. In many cases, drinking carbonated beverages, eating greasy foods or foods with a large amount of fiber can exacerbate symptoms. In turn, making changes to dietary habits may bring temporary relief. Some recommendations from the NDDIC include the following:
- Eating smaller meals
- Chewing more slowly and completely
- Drinking noncarbonated beverages
- Staying active for two hours after meals
- Avoiding high-fat or high-fiber foods
Medications. Several medications are available today to treat gastroparesis, including:
- Reglan (metoclopramide). Reglan can help reduce both vomiting and nausea. It works by forcing the stomach muscles to contract to assist the stomach with gastric emptying.
- Erythromycin. An antibiotic, erythromycin might help with gastric emptying. It works in the same manner as Reglan -- stimulating the stomach muscles to contract.
- Cholinergic drugs. These medications stimulate nerve receptors to move food through the digestive tract.
Surgery (Gastroenterostomy). If nutrition or medication changes don't work, health care providers may recommend a surgical procedure called a Gastroenterostomy. Designed to bypass the stomach, a surgeon attaches a feeding tube to the abdominal wall and connects it to the jejunum (part of the small intestine). Remember, this procedure is usually only recommended in extreme cases of gastroparesis.
For individuals with diabetes, they may need to take the following steps to better control their gastroparesis symptoms:
- Change the type of insulin they use
- Take insulin more often
- Instead of taking insulin after meals, taking insulin before meals
- Checking blood sugar levels more frequently
If you suspect you may be suffering from gastroparesis, schedule an appointment with your health care provider. Do not make any insulin or medication adjustments prior to speaking to members of your health care team.
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, "Gastroparesis"
US National Library of Medicine, "Gastroparesis"