You’ve just eaten a wonderful meal, and before you can even savor your last bite, you feel your stomach starting to bloat and discomfort setting in. Sound familiar? We’ve all heard of (and used) the term indigestion to describe food-related abdominal discomfort (or pain), but what exactly causes it, and how does it affect our bodies? Most importantly, is there any way to prevent it?
While common, indigestion, also known as dyspepsia, affects each person differently. To most effectively treat or at least manage indigestion, it helps to know what may trigger it and who may be at a higher risk of experiencing it.
Here, we’ll discuss its causes, symptoms, and treatments. We’ll also suggest some lifestyle adjustments that may help prevent or minimize your next case of indigestion.
What Is Dyspepsia (Indigestion)?
Whether you refer to it as dyspepsia or indigestion, both are general names that describe a set of symptoms affecting your upper abdomen (i.e., chest and stomach). Typically, indigestion occurs right after you start eating or drinking. Even if you’ve only consumed a small amount of food or beverage, indigestion can make you may feel overly full (i.e., bloated), uncomfortable, or nauseous. You may also experience burping or abdominal pain.
While indigestion is not a disease, in some cases, it can be a telling sign of an existing digestive illness, like gastritis or peptic ulcer disease. Most of the time, indigestion is mild and unrelated to another disease. In such instances, there are ways–with and without medicine–to ease the symptoms and their frequency. Before discussing treatment options, let’s first focus on the symptoms themselves.
The following are the most common indigestion symptoms:
- Feeling bloated (overly full) during or after a meal because of gas buildup
- Pain in the abdomen
- Excessive gas and/or belching
- A burning or gnawing sensation in the stomach or upper abdomen
- Having an acidic taste in your mouth
- Feeling nauseous and/or vomiting
- Feeling your stomach growl more than usual
As we mentioned, each person experiences indigestion differently. A sufferer may feel one, some, or all of these symptoms. It’s worth noting that people often confuse indigestion with heartburn, since you can experience both at the same time, especially after eating. However, the two are not interchangeable. Whereas indigestion describes various symptoms that involve your stomach, heartburn is usually a symptom (a burning sensation in the chest) that occurs because of a condition, typically acid reflux, that affects your esophagus lining.
Common Causes of Indigestion
Usually, indigestion is linked to lifestyle choices and eating habits. For example, eating too quickly or too much may trigger the onset of symptoms. As can lying down too soon after eating, which can make it harder for your body to digest food. You may also recognize from personal experience that consuming certain foods or beverages may lead to indigestion.
When food or beverages (or the way we consume them) are the culprits of indigestion what happens in our bodies is that stomach acid comes into contact with and breaks down the protective lining of the digestive system, called the mucosa. The result is irritation and/or inflammation, which causes uncomfortable and/or painful symptoms of indigestion.
Food aside, stress can also bring on or intensify symptoms of indigestion. This is because the physiological changes that stress creates in our central nervous system also affect our digestive system. Namely, stress can increase the amount of stomach acid we produce, which, as we described above, can wreak havoc on the mucosa, resulting in indigestion.
Here is a more detailed list of the many common causes of indigestion:
- Eating too much or too quickly, especially in times of stress
- Eating too much spicy, fatty, or greasy foods
- Eating too much chocolate
- Drinking too much caffeine, alcohol or carbonated beverages
- Having gallstones
- Being constipated
- Having intestinal blockage
- Having existing digestive illnesses
- Inflammation of the stomach (gastritis)
- Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis)
- Hiatus hernia
- Experiencing high levels of stress, depression or anxiety
- Celiac disease
- Being obese
- Peptic ulcers
- Certain medications, like antibiotics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
- Stomach cancer, though this is rare
- Infection with Helicobacter Pylori bacteria.
Who Is at Risk for Dyspepsia?
Indigestion is extremely common; it affects everyone, no matter your age or sex. That being said, since lifestyle and dietary choices play a role in triggering the symptoms, certain people may have a higher risk of experiencing indigestion than others. Here are some risk factors for indigestion. You’ll notice that some of them overlap with our list of causes:
- Consuming too much alcohol
- Using certain anti-inflammatory pain relief medicine, which can upset the stomach. These include aspirin, ibuprofen, and others
- Underlying digestive conditions, like IBS, Crohn’s disease, or an ulcer
- Family history of indigestion problems.
- If you have Diabetes
- Emotional difficulties, like anxiety, stress or depression
Home Remedies for Indigestion
When it comes to treating indigestion, most of the time, all that’s needed is a tweak to your lifestyle and/or eating habits. If your symptoms are mild and/or infrequent, consider making the following adjustments to your lifestyle. They may reduce or prevent digestive problems and consequently prevent, ease, or relieve indigestion symptoms:
- Eat smaller meals, more frequently
- Eat more slowly
- Don’t overeat
- Wait at least 2 hours after eating before lying down
- Limit consumption of spicy, salty, greasy, and fatty foods, as well as chocolate
- Avoid high-citric fruits, like oranges and tomatoes
- Reduce the amount of caffeinated, alcoholic and carbonated beverages you drink
- Get 7-8 hours of sleep every night
- Exercise regularly
- Reduce stress
- Avoid pain relievers that can irritate your stomach, like aspirin, naproxen sodium, and ibuprofen
- Avoid mixing cold and hot food
Doctors recommend avoiding foods (like the ones listed above) that aggravate indigestion. However, it’s also helpful to incorporate certain foods into your diet that may help alleviate or prevent indigestion. Consuming more of the following foods may ensure that your home remedies for indigestion are successful.
- Foods high in fiber: Fiber is nature’s way of helping our intestines push through and clear out food. As fiber helps improve our digestion, it can protect against indigestion. Look for high-fiber foods like certain non-acidic fruits, legumes, nuts, and whole-grain foods. There are also fiber-fortified cereals and yogurts available.
- Specific foods that best alleviate dyspepsia: Apples, rice, bread, honey, caraway seeds, dates, papaya, ginger, and quince.
- Drink fluids with every meal: Consuming fluids (specifically non-alcoholic and non-carbonated) can help move your food more smoothly through your digestive tract.
Medications and Other Treatment Options for Indigestion
For more severe or frequent symptoms, medications are also available. Naturally, treatment of indigestion depends on the cause and severity of symptoms. For cases where indigestion is more persistent or intense, there are medications that can help with indigestion treatment. Doctors tend to recommend starting with over-the-counter antacids. These combat the effects of stomach acid in your digestive tract. If those don’t work, here are some other medications that may be prescribed to you:
- Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)
- H-2-receptor antagonists (H2RAs)
- Anti-anxiety or antidepressants medications
In some cases, indigestion can occur with no known or obvious cause. When this happens, it’s medically referred to as functional dyspepsia. While common, it can be long-lasting. Symptoms are similar to those of regular dyspepsia. Some explanations suggest that, perhaps, a stomach impairment could be preventing the stomach from receiving and digesting food normally, resulting in dyspepsia symptoms.
While most cases of indigestion are mild and of no concern, there are instances when indigestion can be a sign of an existing problem. As we mentioned earlier, such underlying illnesses or conditions can include:
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Gallbladder disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Stomach cancer
- Esophageal Cancer
It’s important to know that severe indigestion can contribute to long-term health problems within your digestive tract. These can include scarring of the esophagus, which can cause it to narrow and therefore be restricted. As the esophagus is the tube that brings food from your mouth to your stomach, any restrictions will create digestive problems and overall health issues.
When to See a Doctor
In most cases, indigestion will not require medical attention or even medicine. However, it is recommended to see your doctor if you have recurring, severe, or long-lasting (i.e., for more than 2 weeks) indigestion. The same goes if any of the following signs occur or apply:
- Unintentional weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty swallowing that gets increasingly worse
- Vomiting with blood or coffee-ground-looking material
- Bloody or black stools
- You are 55 or older
- You are anemic
- You have a lump in your stomach
- Chest pain that extends to the arm, neck or jaw
These particular symptoms may signify a pre-existing condition, like an ulcer or, in very rare cases, stomach cancer. Seeking medical attention will address or rule out any serious concerns. If you are experiencing severe indigestion symptoms, it’s best to diagnose and treat them before they lead to other digestive problems.
How K Health Can Help
While uncomfortable, most of the time, indigestion is of no concern. However, if you want more insight into what causes indigestion, or if digestive problems persist, our doctors are here to provide guidance. Additionally, the K Health app can help you quickly determine whether the stomach problems you are experiencing may be caused by indigestion or something more serious. If you have mild symptoms, our doctors can help determine the best indigestion treatment, whether it be simple adjustments to your lifestyle and eating habits indigestion medicine. We can also help you learn what you can do to help prevent or ease future occurrences.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.