What Is Indigestion?
Indigestion (also known as dyspepsia) happens to almost everyone from time to time. Eating habits or a chronic digestive problem can trigger indigestion.
Indigestion can cause stomach pain or bloating. You may also have heartburn, nausea, and vomiting. Other common symptoms of indigestion include:
- feeling full during a meal and not being able to finish eating
- feeling extremely full after eating a normal-sized meal
- a burning sensation in the stomach or esophagus
- a gnawing sensation in the stomach
- excessive gas or belching
It’s important that you don’t ignore severe symptoms of indigestion. See your doctor right away if you experience any of the following:
- severe vomiting
- vomit that is bloody or that looks like coffee grounds
- unexplained weight loss
- black stools
- trouble swallowing
Causes of Indigestion
In some cases, indigestion results from overeating or eating too fast. Eating spicy, greasy, and fatty foods also increases the risk of indigestion. Lying down too soon after meals can make it harder to digest food, increasing your risk for abdominal discomfort.
Other common causes of poor digestion include:
- drinking too much alcohol
- side effects of medicines (especially nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen)
Eating habits and lifestyle choices aren’t the only possible causes of indigestion. Sometimes, symptoms of indigestion indicate a serious problem in the upper digestive tract. Common digestive diseases that can cause indigestion include:
- acid reflux disease (also called GERD)
- gastric cancer
- pancreatic or bile duct abnormalities
- peptic ulcers (sores in the lining of the stomach and esophagus caused by the H. pylori bacteria)
Sometimes, there’s no known cause of indigestion. This is called functional dyspepsia. Functional dyspepsia may be caused by abnormal muscle motility (squeezing action) in the area where the stomach muscles digest and move food into the small intestine.
Your doctor will likely start by asking questions about your medical history and eating habits. You’ll undergo a physical examination, and your doctor may order X-ray images of your abdomen to see if there are any abnormalities in your digestive tract. Your doctor may also collect samples of your blood, breath, and stool to check for a type of bacteria that causes peptic ulcers.
An endoscopic examination of the upper digestive tract can also be used to check for abnormalities. With an endoscopy, your doctor gently passes a small tube with a camera and biopsy tool through your esophagus and into your stomach. This allows your doctor to check the lining of the digestive tract for diseases, and collect tissue samples to be tested for infection or cancer. You’ll be mildly sedated for this procedure. An upper gastrointestinal (GI) endoscopy can diagnose GERD, ulcers, infection, and cancer.
Treatment Options for Indigestion
Several medications can treat indigestion, although you may have side effects. Over-the-counter antacids like Maalox and Mylanta help neutralize stomach acid, but may cause diarrhea or constipation.
H2 receptor antagonists (H2RAs), such as Zantac and Pepcid, work to reduce stomach acid. Side effects of these medications include:
- rash or itching
- bleeding or bruising
Prokinetics, such as the prescription medications Reglan and Motilium, improve the muscle action (motility) of the digestive tract. These medications may cause depression, anxiety, involuntary movements or spasms, and fatigue.
Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) like Prilosec also reduce stomach acid, but are typically stronger than H2RAs. Side effects of these medications include:
- nausea and vomiting
- abdominal pain
Both PPIs and H2 drugs are typically used to treat peptic ulcers. If the bacteria H. pylori are the cause of ulcers, these drugs are used in combination with antibiotics, such as clarithromycin and amoxicillin.
Lifestyle Changes and Home Care
Medication isn’t the only treatment option for indigestion. You may be able to improve digestion and relieve uncomfortable symptoms with simple lifestyle adjustments. For example:
- Eat smaller meals throughout the day.
- Avoid spicy, fatty foods that can trigger heartburn.
- Eat more slowly and don’t eat before lying down.
- Stop smoking.
- Lose excess body weight.
- Reduce the amount of coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol you consume.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Stop taking medicines that irritate the stomach lining, such as NSAIDs and aspirin.
- Reduce stress through yoga or relaxation therapy.
Although poor digestion is a common problem, you shouldn’t ignore indigestion that’s chronic, severe, or doesn’t respond to over-the-counter medication. If it’s left untreated, the symptoms of indigestion may interfere with the quality of your life.
If you’re unable to manage indigestion at home, speak with your doctor to determine the underlying cause of poor digestion.