Diet and Nutrition

What Is Indigestion? Get the Facts

What Is Indigestion? Get the Facts

Key Takeaways

  • Indigestion is a more common term for dyspepsia.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen can affect your digestive tract and put you at risk of indigestion.
  • Treatment options for indigestion include medicine and lifestyle changes. 

Indigestion, also known as heartburn, is a common term used to describe the discomfort or pain felt in the upper abdomen just below the ribs. It is not a disease. It is merely a symptom and it can be just another symptom of many digestive problems. The main complaint of those who experience indigestion is pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen, and a feeling of fullness soon after having a meal.

Indigestion can be experienced by each person in different ways. So, the feeling of indigestion you feel may be slightly different from that of your friends. However, in most cases, indigestion is just mild and may only occur occasionally.

What are the signs and symptoms of indigestion?

If you have indigestion, then you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling of an early fullness – You may have not even finished eating, but you feel really full after a few spoonfuls and may find it difficult to finish the meal.
  • Uncomfortably full after a meal – The abdominal fullness may last longer than it normally does and is very uncomfortable.
  • Upper abdominal discomfort – You may feel pain or discomfort in your upper abdomen just below your breast bone and above the navel.
  • Bloated abdomen – You may feel an uncomfortable sensation of tightness, especially in your upper abdomen.
  • Flatulence – This is the passing of wind or belching.
  • Stomach upset – You may begin feeling sick or nauseous.

These symptoms typically occur soon after a meal but the time after may vary.

It is normal for you to feel heartburn along with indigestion, but keep in mind that heartburn and indigestion are two separate conditions. Indigestion is an upper abdominal discomfort, whereas heartburn is a burning sensation in your chest that may radiate to your neck or the back during or after a meal. While heartburn and indigestion can occur together, they can also occur separately on their own.

What are the causes of indigestion?

Indigestion has several possible causes. The common causes of indigestion include:

  • Overeating or eating too rapidly
  • Lying down soon after a meal
  • Fatty and spicy foods 
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Experiencing a bout of anxiety
  • Consuming too much alcohol
  • Medicinal drugs or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) including aspirin and ibuprofen
  • Drinking too much caffeinated or carbonated beverages

Lifestyle choices and eating habits are not the only causes of indigestion. Sometimes, indigestion can occur as part of a disease. The common diseases that can include indigestion as a symptom include:

Sometimes, no known cause is identified. In such situations, it is called as functional or non-ulcer dyspepsia.

What puts you at risk of indigestion?

There are several factors that can put you more at risk of indigestion or may even worsen the condition. They include:

Medicinal drugs

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen can affect your digestive tract and put you at risk of indigestion. If you have stomach ulcers, then it is best that you avoid NSAIDs as they may worsen your condition. If you are less than 16 years old, you should not take aspirin.

Drugs like nitrates can also increase the risk of indigestion. Even though nitrates are taken because of their action of dilating the blood vessels, they can also cause relaxation of the sphincter muscle that lies in between your esophagus and the stomach. The sphincter acts as a valve, preventing the contents of your stomach from entering back into the esophagus. Once this ring of muscle relaxes, the stomach contents find a way to get back to your esophagus, thereby leading to indigestion.

Obesity

If you are overweight or obese, then you are at risk of indigestion because there will be an increased pressure built up within your stomach soon after a meal and cause an acid reflux.

Smoking

The chemicals in tobacco and cigarettes can cause the sphincter between your esophagus and the stomach to relax. This leads to acid reflux and therefore increases your risk of indigestion.

Consuming too much alcohol

The excessive consumption of alcohol causes your stomach to produce more acid than normal, which can damage your stomach lining. This may increase your risk of indigestion.

Pregnancy

Pregnancy puts you at risk of indigestion in two main ways. The first is that during pregnancy, there is a hormonal change, which directly increases your risk of indigestion. The second is that the increasing size of the uterus compresses the stomach, thereby increasing the chance of indigestion.

Stress and anxiety

Stress and anxiety are two factors that also contribute to indigestion.

How is indigestion diagnosed?

The diagnosis of your condition cannot be done straightforwardly. It must be approached step-by-step. Your doctor will begin by taking a complete history from you including the symptoms you experience, your past medical history, and drug history.

Next, your doctor will move on to do a full physical examination. Your doctor will then order the necessary investigations to look for certain abnormalities or to exclude more severe conditions that may present in a similar way.

The exams your doctor might order include:

  • Blood tests
  • Stool examination
  • Upper GI endoscopy
  • X-ray of the abdomen

How is indigestion treated?

Treatment options for indigestion include medicine and lifestyle changes.

You can take some over-the-counter antacids such as Maalox to help neutralize the excess acid in the stomach and relieve the pain. However, if they do not seem to work, visit your doctor immediately.

Your doctor may prescribe you the following drugs:

  • H2-receptor antagonists (H2RAs) such as Zantac and Pepcid - These drugs are prescribed to reduce the stomach acid content.
  • Prokinetics like the prescription medications Reglan and Motilium - These drugs will improve the muscular action of the digestive tract.
  • Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) like Prilosec - These drugs will also help reduce the stomach acid content.

Medicine alone will not help. For better results, combine it with some lifestyle changes. Some lifestyle changes that you should make include:

  • Not eating a lot of food at once or binge eat. Eat only a small quantity of food at a time.
  • Not lying down soon after a meal.
  • Avoiding spicy and fatty foods that may trigger heartburn.
  • Stop smoking. If you smoke, it is in your best interest to quit.
  • Reducing your alcohol consumption.
  • If you are overweight or obese, try to exercise regularly and lose the excess weight.
  • Ensure that you are well rested.
  • Not taking NSAIDs that may irritate the stomach lining.
  • Relieving your stress by meditating or doing yoga.

Can indigestion become a chronic problem?

Indigestion is often caused due to swelling or inflammation of the stomach lining. Mostly, indigestion occurs on and off in people. However, when the signs of indigestion persist for a longer duration, it may be cause for concern.

There are some symptoms that can indicate that indigestion is a sign of another underlying health condition. Some of the possibilities include internal bleeding that could be the result of a stomach ulcer, a cancerous growth in the stomach lining, or a tumor in the gullet or the esophagus region of the digestive system. While the possibility of these problems is rare, you should see a doctor immediately if:

  • You are suffering from persistent indigestion as a first-time episode and you are above 55 years of age.
  • You pass blood in your stools, which is normally seen as tarry and black-colored.
  • You notice traces of blood in your vomit.
  • You experience sudden and unexpected weight loss.
  • Have trouble gulping down food.
  • Feeling extremely tired and have a general unwell feeling.
  • Constant vomiting or a persistent feeling of nausea.
  • Are at risk of cancers or ulcers.

If any of the above symptoms persist, then the doctor is likely to suggest that you get an endoscopy, which involves inserting a tiny telescope into your stomach for a closer view of what’s happening inside.

Natural Remedies to Treat Indigestion

If your indigestion is not because of any serious medical issues and is mostly because of wrong food choices or lifestyle habits, there are several natural remedies to help you treat the condition. These natural remedies are safe and free from any forms of side effects that could occur due to medications.

  • Apple cider vinegar: Apple cider vinegar is known for several cleansing properties that are very good for the body. Although it is highly acidic in nature, it helps in calming an upset stomach due to its alkalizing properties. Dilute about a tablespoon of raw organic apple cider vinegar with about a teaspoon of raw honey. Drink this mix about two to three times for immediate relief.
  • Fennel seeds: Fennel seeds are often consumed after a meal for their properties that aid in digestion. Similarly, fennel seeds can help you treat indigestion that is triggered by what you eat. There are some essential oils in fennel seeds that can help in controlling symptoms such as bloating and nausea. Fennel seeds can be consumed in several ways. You can chew some of the seeds, make fennel tea by sitting some fennel seeds in hot water, or even roast and grind fennel seeds to a fine powder and consume it every day.
  • Ginger: Ginger is one of the best remedies there is for treating indigestion. Ginger stimulates digestive juices and the flow of enzymes that help you digest your food. This makes ginger an effective remedy for indigestion, especially when it is caused by overeating. A number of people have freshly cut ginger coated with some sprinkled salt after every meal to prevent indigestion.
  • Baking soda: One of the primary causes of indigestion is a higher concentration of acids in the stomach. Baking soda acts as a natural antacid that is perfect for the treatment of indigestion. Add about one and a half teaspoons of baking soda in about a half a glass of water.
  • Carom seeds: Also known as bishop’s weed, carom seeds have digestive enzymes that can help relieve a number of problems caused by indigestion including nausea, bloating, and diarrhea. You can drink water that has carom seeds seeped in or chew some of its seeds.
  • Herbal tea: Consuming herbal teas, particularly after a heavy meal, cannot only treat but also prevent indigestion. There are several herbal teas available, so choose your flavor and have it after every meal. Teas like peppermint and chamomile are known to have a calming effect on a troubled stomach.
  • Cumin: Cumin has a strong significance in Ayurveda for curing various digestive problems such as indigestion, nausea, bloating, diarrhea, and so on. It helps in the secretion of certain pancreatic enzymes, which are beneficial for the digestive process.
  • Coriander: Coriander is yet another spice that is highly beneficial in treating indigestion. It works by promoting the secretion of certain digestive enzymes, which are very useful in calming an upset stomach and the digestive tract. You can consume coriander seed powder after roasting and grinding them along with adding in some buttermilk. Take this every day to promote a better digestion.
  • Basil: Basil works as an excellent treatment for indigestion and acid reflux. It also helps in relieving bloating that is caused by intestinal gas. Drink about two to three cups of warm water with basil extract. You can alternatively make a mixture of about five to six ground basil leaves, along with powdered black pepper, and about 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt. This mix can be consumed two to three times a day along with some plain yogurt.
  • Cinnamon: Cinnamon is also a great remedy to treat indigestion. Cinnamon aids in the digestion process and helps in getting instant relief from stomach cramps and bloating. Cinnamon tea is easy to make by adding some cinnamon powder to boiling water and allowing the spice to steep, getting its extract into the water. The tea should be consumed hot for more effective results.

These home remedies are largely helpful in getting rid of indigestion symptoms. However, if the symptoms persist even after trying these remedies, it is best to consult a doctor.