Indigestion is often a sign of an underlying problem, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcers, or gallbladder disease, rather than a condition of its own.
Also called dyspepsia, it is defined as a persistent or recurrent pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen.
Indigestion can be pain or discomfort in your upper abdomen (dyspepsia) or burning pain behind the breastbone (heartburn).
An upset stomach isn’t usually cause for alarm. Indigestion, or dyspepsia, is fairly common. But pay attention to persistent indigestion that affects your quality of life. It could point to a more serious gastrointestinal (stomach and intestines) disorder. Most of the time, though, dietary changes and medication are enough to treat indigestion.
Dyspepsia and heartburn may occur together or on their own. Symptoms usually appear soon after eating or drinking.
Dyspepsia, also known as indigestion, refers to discomfort or pain that occurs in the upper abdomen, often after eating or drinking. It is not a disease but a symptom.
Dyspepsia is a common problem, affecting up to 30% of the population. Common symptoms include bloating, discomfort, feeling too full, nausea, and gas.
In most cases, it happens after eating or drinking. Lifestyle changes can often help.
What Is Indigestion?
Indigestion is a condition medically known as dyspepsia. This condition causes discomfort in the upper abdomen, resulting in belching, bloating and nausea. Indigestion most often occurs during or right after eating and is a very common digestive problem, often mistaken for heartburn. Most commonly, people suffer indigestion from overeating, drinking alcohol while eating, or eating greasy, fried or spicy foods.
Symptoms of indigestion vary in intensity among individuals. Some people experience only mild symptoms, such as uncomfortable fullness and belching after a meal, while others may experience abdominal bloating, a burning feeling in the abdomen, and pain. Episodes of indigestion may subside quickly and can recur frequently, even daily.
Among patients seeking medical care for indigestion symptoms, an underlying cause is discovered in only 25%. The remaining 75% are considered to have functional dyspepsia.
Fortunately, indigestion can be treated with medications. More importantly, you can reduce your risk of indigestion by avoiding overly spicy, greasy or fried foods, not overeating, and aiding digestion by eating at least two hours before bedtime to avoid lying down right after your meal.
Occasionally, diseases that are thought to be functional are ultimately found to be associated with abnormalities that can be seen by the naked eye or under the microscope. Then, the disease moves out of the functional category. An example of this would be Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection of the stomach. Some patients with mild upper gastrointestinal symptoms who were thought to have abnormal function of the stomach or intestines have been found to have stomachs infected with H. pylori.
This infection can be diagnosed under the microscope by identifying the bacterium in biopsies from the stomach. When patients are treated with antibiotics, the H. pylori and symptoms disappear. Thus, recognition of infections with Helicobacter pylori has removed some patients’ symptoms from the functional disease category.
The distinction between functional disease and non-functional disease may, in fact, be blurry. Thus, even functional diseases probably have associated biochemical or molecular abnormalities that ultimately will be able to be measured. For example, functional diseases of the stomach and intestines may be shown ultimately to be associated with reduced or increased levels of normal chemicals within the gastrointestinal organs, the spinal cord, or the brain. Should a disease that is demonstrated to be due to a reduced or increased chemical still be considered a functional disease?
In this theoretical situation, we can’t see the abnormality with the naked eye or the microscope, but we can measure it. If we can measure an associated or causative abnormality, should the disease no longer be considered functional, even though the disease (symptoms) are being caused by abnormal function? The answer is unclear.
Despite the shortcomings of the term, functional, the concept of a functional abnormality is useful for approaching many of the symptoms originating from the muscular organs of the gastrointestinal tract. To repeat, this concept applies to those symptoms for which there are no associated abnormalities that can be seen with the naked eye or the microscope.
While dyspepsia is a major functional disease(s), it is important to mention several other functional diseases. A second major functional disease is the irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. The symptoms of IBS are thought to originate primarily from the small intestine and/or colon. The symptoms of IBS include abdominal pain that is accompanied by alterations in bowel movements (defecation), primarily constipation or diarrhea. In fact, indigestion and IBS may be overlapping diseases since up to half of patients with IBS also have symptoms of indigestion. A third distinct functional disorder is non-cardiac chest pain.
This pain may mimic heart pain (angina), but it is unassociated with heart disease. In fact, non-cardiac chest pain is thought to often result from a functional abnormality of the esophagus.
Functional disorders of the gastrointestinal tract often are categorized by the organ of involvement. Thus, there are functional disorders of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon, and gallbladder. The amount of research that has been done with functional disorders is greatest in the esophagus and stomach (for example, non-cardiac chest pain, indigestion), perhaps because these organs are easiest to reach and study. Research into functional disorders affecting the small intestine and colon (IBS) is more difficult to conduct, and there is less agreement among the research studies.
This probably is a reflection of the complexity of the activities of the small intestine and colon and the difficulty in studying these activities. Functional diseases of the gallbladder (referred to as biliary dyskinesia), like those of the small intestine and colon, are more difficult to study, and at present they are less well-defined. Each of the functional diseases is associated with its own set of characteristic symptoms.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Indigestion?
Common indigestion symptoms and signs include:
- Abdominal pain
- Heartburn or acid indigestion (acid reflux)
- Bloating (full feeling)
- Excessive gas (belching, burping or flatulence)
- Nausea with or without vomiting
- Acidic taste in the mouth
- Gurgling, rumbling, or growling stomach discomfort
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Decreased appetite
Consult your healthcare professional if there are changes in your symptoms, or indigestion symptoms continue or worsen, or if they are accompanied by unintentional weight loss, blood in stool, difficulty in swallowing, or inability to eat due to poor appetite.
Visit your health-care professional for regular health check-ups. Some testing performed to diagnose the cause of your indigestion may be repeated in the future to gauge the response to treatment.
Causes of Indigestion
Indigestion something results from overeating or eating too fast. Spicy, greasy, and fatty foods also increase the risk of indigestion. Lying down too soon after eating can make it harder to digest food. This increase your risk for abdominal discomfort.
Other common causes of poor digestion include:
- drinking too much alcohol
- side effects of medications
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, are one class of medications that can cause side effects.
Eating habits and lifestyle choices can cause. Symptoms of indigestion can also be caused by:
- acid reflux disease (GERD)
- gastric cancer
- pancreatic or bile duct abnormalities
- peptic ulcers
Peptic ulcers are sores in the lining of the stomach, esophagus, or duodenum that can be caused by H. pyloribacteria.
Sometimes, there’s no known cause of indigestion, which is referred to as functional dyspepsia. Functional dyspepsia may be caused by abnormal muscle motility, like a squeezing action, in the area where the stomach muscles digest and move food into the small intestine.
How Is Indigestion Diagnosed?
A healthcare provider will review your medical history, symptoms and lifestyle. Try to explain your indigestion in as much detail as possible. Note the type of discomfort and where you feel it. Also tell your healthcare provider when you experience indigestion. For example, does it occur after a meal or on an empty stomach? Is it worse in the morning or at night? Do certain foods make it worse?
Your healthcare provider will do a physical exam. They’ll check your belly for swelling or tenderness. They may use a stethoscope (medical instrument to hear sounds inside the body) to check your stomach for growling or gurgling.
Other diagnostic tests may include:
- Blood tests, to assess your liver, kidney and thyroid function.
- Breath test, to check for H pylori.
- Imaging exams, to check for blockages or other problems in the intestines. Imaging exams may include X-ray, CT scan or upper endoscopy.
- Stool test, to check poop for H. pylori or other bacterial infections.
How Is Indigestion Treated?
Treatment for indigestion begins with seeking medical care from your health care provider. To determine if you have indigestion, your health care provider will ask you questions and may recommend that you undergo diagnostic tests. The goal of clinical evaluation is to identify the root cause for the indigestion, making sure to exclude serious and treatable conditions.
Your health care provider can develop a treatment plan specifically tailored to your needs. It is important that you follow your treatment plan for indigestion precisely and take all medications as instructed to help avoid worsening symptoms and recurrence.
Medications to treat indigestion
Antacids are the mainstay of treatment for indigestion and can be highly effective in relieving symptoms. In addition, medications to decrease stomach acid and help increase antibiotic effectiveness may be given.
Proton pump inhibitors that are effective in the treatment of indigestion include:
- Esomeprazole (Nexium)
- Lansoprazole (Prevacid)
- Omeprazole (Prilosec)
- Pantoprazole (Protonix)
- Rabeprazole (Aciphex)
Histamine (H-2) blockers that are effective in the treatment of indigestion include:
- Cimetidine (Tagamet)
- Famotidine (Pepcid)
- Nizatidine (Axid)
- Ranitidine (Zantac)
What Home Remedies Help Relieve Indigestion?
Indigestion is a symptom of other conditions, so treatment usually depends upon the cause. When the cause is lifestyle-related, prevention is the best way to find relief of symptoms.
Some over-the-counter medications may help relieve indigestion pain include:
Antacids (Tums, Rolaids)
Acid blockers (ranitidine [Zantac], omeprazole [Prilosec OTC]).
Other indigestion remedies to alleviate symptoms include:
- Avoid laying down flat, as this may worsen symptoms
- Drink milk or water to ease the acid in the stomach
How Can You Prevent Indigestion?
Most episodes of indigestion go away within hours without medical attention. If indigestion symptoms worsen, consult a health-care professional.
Indigestion caused by lifestyle habits can often be prevented.
- Do not chew with your mouth open, talk while chewing, or eat quickly. This causes you to swallow air, which can aggravate indigestion.
- Chew food completely and eat slowly.
- Drink fluids after meals, rather than during.
- Avoid late-night eating.
- Avoid spicy, greasy foods.
- Quit smoking.
- Avoid alcoholic beverages.
- Avoid caffeine.
- Wait at least one hour after eating to exercise.
- Always take aspirin and NSAIDs with food.
- If you are lactose intolerant or allergic to a food, avoid the aggravating foods.
- Meditation may help if indigestion is caused by stress or anxiety.
- Cut back on alcohol consumption, because alcohol can also irritate the stomach lining.
- Avoid wearing tight-fitting garments, because they tend to compress the stomach, which can cause its contents to enter the esophagus.
- Don’t exercise with a full stomach. Rather, exercise before a meal or at least one hour after eating a meal.
- Don’t lie down right after eating.
- Wait at least three hours after your last meal of the day before going to bed.
- Sleep with your head elevated (at least 6 inches) above your feet and use pillows to prop yourself up. This will help allow digestive juices to flow into the intestines rather than to the esophagus.