In this article:
- Indigestion is not a condition in itself but a symptom of an underlying issue, usually a gastrointestinal one.
- When the cause of the indigestion is unknown, it is called functional dyspepsia.
- Treatment, which focuses on the alleviation of symptoms, is recommended according to the cause of indigestion.
- The discomfort of indigestion can be avoided most often by making healthy lifestyle changes. Improved eating and drinking habits can also have a positive impact on digestion.
Indigestion, or dyspepsia, can be quite uncomfortable and, at times even painful. It is the result of symptoms occurring due to gastrointestinal issues.
The most common cause of indigestion is acid reflux. Acid reflux refers to the leakage of stomach acid into the esophagus, which causes irritation in the lining (mucosa).
The symptoms and causes of indigestion vary from person to person. When the reason for indigestion cannot be ascertained, it is known as functional dyspepsia (FD).
FD is a chronic disorder that causes fullness, bloating, early satiety, and burning. It is called functional because of the lack of any apparent structural abnormalities that can explain the symptoms. (1)
Types of Indigestion
Indigestion can be of two types: (3)
- Organic dyspepsia: The causes of indigestion are organic, such as pancreatic or biliary disorders, gastric or esophageal cancer, intolerance to food or drugs, gastroesophageal reflux disease, peptic ulcer, and other infectious or systemic diseases.
- Functional dyspepsia: The causes of indigestion are pathophysiological or pathogenic. Pathophysiological causes include delayed gastric emptying, weak gastric accommodation to a meal, and sensitivity to gastric distension, lipids, or acids.
Pathogenic causes include genetics, infections due to Helicobacter pylori or other organisms, inflammation, and psychosocial factors.
This article covers occasional mild indigestion due to common causes.
Symptoms of Indigestion
Indigestion is a common condition and can occur in both men and women of all ages, although some people are more prone to it. It can occur occasionally or sometimes as often as every day. (2)
Pain, bloating, and fullness after meals are the most common symptoms of indigestion. The discomfort it causes varies in intensity.
The abnormal functioning of the gastrointestinal tract that results in indigestion causes the following symptoms:
- Pain, burning sensation, or uneasiness in the upper abdomen
- Bloating, gassiness, or flatulence
- Feeling full immediately after starting to eat
- Loud gurgle in the stomach
- Upset stomach
- Belching or regurgitation
- Acidic taste in the mouth
Causes of Indigestion
Indigestion occurs when stomach acid comes in contact with the sensitive protective lining of the digestive system. This acid causes tears in the lining, resulting in a burning sensation in the abdomen.
Some common causes of indigestion include the following:
- Overeating or heavy eating
- Eating too fast
- Spicy, fatty, or greasy food
- Overconsumption of alcoholic beverages
- Carbonated or fizzy drinks
- Poor sleep hygiene
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Certain medicines: aspirin, ibuprofen, and other NSAIDs (Motrin, Advil, and Excedrin) and antidepressants (specifically SSRIs)
Other factors also play a role in indigestion, including:
- Stomach or duodenal ulcers
- Stomach irritation (gastritis)
- Inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis)
- Gastritis, hiatal hernia, gallstones, gastroesophageal reflux disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), thyroid dysfunction, chronic pancreatitis, stomach cancer (rare), esophageal cancer, pancreatic cancer, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and biliary causes
The first step toward finding relief from indigestion is finding its cause.
To diagnose indigestion, the doctor will inquire about your symptoms, eating habits, and medical history. The doctor may ask about the following:
- Family history of cancer
- Difficulty in swallowing
- Bleeding from the digestive tract
- Increased frequency of vomiting
- Unintentional weight loss
The doctor will also conduct a physical examination and run some tests, especially when the cause of the indigestion is unknown. The tests may include:
- Upper gastrointestinal endoscopy, x-ray, and CT scan to determine any abnormality or obstruction
- Blood tests to check for metabolic disorders
- A stool antigen test and a urea breath test to check for Helicobacter pylori
- A hydrogen breath test to check for small intestinal bacterial growth
The doctor may refer you to a gastroenterologist depending on the diagnosis.
Conventional Treatment for Indigestion
Depending upon the diagnosis, the doctor may prescribe any of the following treatment:
- Proton-pump inhibitors (omeprazole) and H2 blockers (ranitidine or famotidine)
- Antacids, which relieve the symptoms by neutralizing the stomach acids
- Antibiotics, if the indigestion is due to a bacterial infection
- Prokinetics (bethanechol and metoclopramide), which help empty the stomach faster
- Switching the pain reliever, if aspirin or other NSAIDs is causing the indigestion
Self-care Tips to Manage Indigestion
The symptoms of indigestion usually can be managed and avoided by incorporating changes in your routine and lifestyle. The following are the things that you can and cannot do to fight this condition.
- Stay hydrated to ensure healthy digestion. Water helps in the digestion of food and absorption of nutrients.
It also helps wash the acid that causes indigestion. But drink fluids after a meal, not during your meal.
- Avoid eating fast. Consume small meals and take your time when eating.
- Chew with your mouth closed to prevent swallowing air.
- Sit straight while eating.
- Relax after meals. You may also take a walk after your meal.
- To prevent the stomach acid from coming up while sleeping, keep your head and shoulder slightly elevated.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Maintain a food diary to identify food items that cause indigestion.
- Try to reduce stress with the help of therapy or yoga.
- Chew gum to help neutralize the acid with the help of saliva.
- Consult with your healthcare provider for lactose intolerance or other common conditions that may cause indigestion.
- Avoid late-night eating, especially right before going to bed.
- Avoid spicy or fatty foods.
- Do not indulge in heavy physical activity after having a huge meal.
- Do not smoke.
- Avoid carbonated or fizzy drinks.
- Avoid alcoholic beverages.
- Avoid caffeine.
- Avoid foods that contain a lot of acids, such as tomatoes, tomato products, and oranges.
- Avoid tight-fitting garments as they may squeeze the stomach, causing stomach acid to enter the esophagus.
Simple Ways to Get Rid of Indigestion
When suffering from indigestion, try to maintain a well-balanced diet. To help take care of mild indigestion and find symptomatic relief from dyspepsia, try any of these easy remedies:
1. Include Probiotics in Your Diet
Probiotics contain beneficial bacteria that help maintain a healthy gut by replenishing the intestinal microflora.
According to a review in Current Protein & Peptide Science (2019), probiotics enhance protein digestion and boost the digestive ability of the gut. Due to their various health benefits and positive influence on digestion, probiotics have been increasingly advised for indigestion. (4)
Another study published in BMJ Open Gastroenterology revealed that consumption of probiotics is an effective method to treat functional dyspepsia. (5)
While some studies support the use of probiotics for alleviating indigestion, additional research is needed to determine its true efficacy and dosage. It is important to have conclusive results before incorporating probiotics into daily use.
2. Consume Ginger
Ginger is a well-known remedy for stomach-related issues. It stimulates digestive juices and enhances the flow of enzymes, promoting good digestion.
In a study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology in 2011, ginger was reported to be helpful for patients suffering from functional dyspepsia by stimulating antral contractions and gastric emptying. However, ginger did not have any positive impact on dealing with gastrointestinal issues. (6)
3. Consume Peppermint
Peppermint is widely known for its anti-inflammatory, stomachic, antiseptic, carminative, astringent, analgesic, decongestant, expectorant, and anesthetic properties. Peppermint can also help soothe digestion problems. (7)(8)
4. Use Licorice Root
5. Consider Caraway
In clinical studies, caraway oil, along with peppermint oil or menthol, is used for the treatment of functional dyspepsia. (8) For relief from IBS symptoms, caraway oil can be applied topically to the abdomen.
Although caraway oil is not recommended in individuals under 18 years due to insufficient data, it can be applied topically in children and infants to provide relief from colic and flatulence. (11)
6. Consume Fennel
Fennel has been found to be helpful in digestion and in reducing colic, gas, bloating, abdominal pain, indigestion, nausea, flatulence, and intestinal disorders.
Fennel contains a bioactive compound called fenchone that helps relax the smooth muscle lining of the digestive tract.
Also, a study done on functional foods that enhance digestion included fennel in its list. However, more quality research is required to establish more concrete results. (12)
While these remedies may provide some relief from the uneasiness caused by indigestion, they need to be extensively studied before being used as clinical treatments. If your symptoms persist or become severe, consult a doctor.
Duration of Indigestion
Indigestion may last for years or even a lifetime, and its symptoms may occur over a span of time with varying degrees of intensity. But this is not always the case. Some people suffer from indigestion only when triggers are present.
How to Prevent Indigestion at Night
To avoid suffering from indigestion at night, do not go to bed directly after eating. Going to sleep on the full stomach increases the risk of acid being pushed from the stomach to the esophagus while lying down.
When in bed, use some pillows to prop your head and shoulder. A slight slope will prevent stomach acid from moving into the esophagus.
Does Keto Cause Indigestion?
If acid reflux causes indigestion, then a keto diet may further complicate the matter. Acid reflux symptoms increase in frequency after consuming foods that are high in fat as they take longer to digest.
Indigestion During Pregnancy
Indigestion in the early stage of pregnancy may be due to the changes in hormone levels and increased pressure on the abdomen.
The condition becomes more common in the second or third trimester and may be caused by the baby pushing up against the stomach. Almost 8 in every 10 women have indigestion during their pregnancy.
In some pregnancies, indigestion worsens with time. However, in most cases, the symptoms disappear after giving birth. Indigestion rarely causes any complications during pregnancy.
Menstruation and Indigestion
Further research is required to determine the cause of indigestion during women’s periods. Hormonal changes are the most likely cause of indigestion.
To help manage indigestion during menstruation, try to control the fluctuation of hormones with the help of hormonal contraception.
You may also take careful note of your symptoms, diet, and physical activity to determine triggers. Then try to avoid these triggers before and during your period.
Even though period symptoms can result in feeling quite sick, it is completely normal to have digestion issues during periods.
Indigestion in Babies
Normally, babies suffer from refluxes, and these refluxes are some of the major causes of indigestion.
Nearly half of all babies suffer from reflux. Regurgitation or posseting is the medical term for when the baby throws up milk after feeding. Babies may vomit a portion of their feed or the entire feed.
To understand if the baby has reflux, note the symptoms such as crying and hard to comfort, arching the backs, fussing overfeeds or refusing feeds, and regurgitating feeds effortlessly.
If you suspect reflux or observe any of these symptoms, consult a pediatric gastroenterologist.
Indigestion vs. Heartburn
Indigestion is a general term referring to mild discomfort in the upper belly or abdomen and often occurs during or right after eating. One of the common symptoms of indigestion is heartburn.
Heartburn is characterized by a bitter taste in the mouth and throat along with a burning sensation in the lower portion of the chest. It occurs when the stomach acid goes to your food pipe.
Heartburn is usually felt after having a huge meal or while lying down, and it can last from a few minutes to a couple of hours.
It may be noted that heartburn and acid reflux are the same things – when the acid from the stomach comes up the throat.
Indigestion vs. Food Poisoning
Food poisoning is generally caused by a bacterial, viral, or rarely parasitic infection. The affected individual experiences abdominal pain, stomach cramps, severe diarrhea, and vomiting. It is more severe but shorter in duration than a stomach bug.
If the symptoms include stomach upset, heartburn, bloating, or gas without severe vomiting or diarrhea, the condition is indigestion, not an infection.
Complications of Indigestion
Indigestion usually does not have any serious complications. However, it can cause a lot of discomfort and uneasiness. It affects dietary intake, hampers productivity, and affects the quality of life.
Complications may occur as a consequence of an underlying health problem that may be causing indigestion.
When to See a Doctor
Mild indigestion is a common problem and can be dealt with easily. However, when indigestion lasts for more than 2 weeks, consult a doctor.
The following symptoms can be indicative of a serious condition:
- Black and tarry stools
- Difficulty swallowing
- Multiple bouts of vomiting with blood
- Constant abdominal pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Rapid breathing
- Yellow skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Iron deficiency anemia
- Pain in the upper part of the body including the jaw, neck, chest, and arm
It is especially important to consult a doctor if the patient is older than 50 years or if there is a lump in the stomach area.
What you may ask your doctor:
- What medicines can help my indigestion?
- What medicines do I need to avoid?
- What should be done if nothing helps indigestion?
- What are the side effects of these medications?
- How do I get immediate relief?
- How can I prevent its reoccurrence?
- What lifestyle changes do you suggest?
What your doctor may ask you:
- Is there a specific food item that triggers your indigestion?
- How long have you experienced the symptoms?
- Do you often have these symptoms?
- Have you taken any medications for indigestion before?
- Are you currently taking antibiotics?
- What is your daily routine?
Indigestion is a common health problem that may affect any age group. The discomfort indigestion causes include nausea, bloating, and dehydration. Although indigestion is not a serious condition, it can take a toll on your health and can leave you exhausted.
To find relief from a mild case of indigestion, some over-the-counter medicines, lifestyle changes, and remedies using ingredients available in the kitchen have been found to be helpful.
It is crucial to be consistent in your effort to prevent indigestion and keep track of its triggering factors.