What Is Indigestion?

Indigestion (dyspepsia) happens to almost everyone from time to time. It may cause stomach discomfort or a feeling of being too full. When severe, it can cause heartburn, bloating, nausea, and vomiting.

Indigestion may be the result of your eating habits, or it can be a chronic problem. If you suffer from frequent indigestion, talk to your doctor.

Common Complaints

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
  • heartburn
  • bloating
  • gas
  • nausea
  • vomiting

Causes of Indigestion

Unhealthy eating habits can contribute to poor digestion. Common causes include:

  • overeating
  • eating too quickly
  • eating spicy or fatty foods
  • lying down too soon after eating

Other factors that can cause poor digestion include:

  • smoking
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • side effects of medicines (especially non-steroidal/anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen)

Indigestion can also be the result of serious problems in your upper digestive tract. Common digestive diseases that can cause indigestion include:

  • acid reflux disease (also called GERD)
  • gastric cancer
  • pancreas or bile duct abnormalities
  • peptic ulcers (sores in the lining of the stomach and esophagus caused by the H. pylori bacterium)

According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, digestive diseases affect 60 to 70 million Americans each year (NDDIC). GERD was reported by about 20 percent of the population in 2004, while peptic ulcer disease affected 14.5 million people in 2007.

Sometimes, it is impossible to determine the 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 help digest food and move it into the small intestine (NDDIC).

Diagnosing Indigestion

Your doctor will start by asking questions about your medical history and eating habits. He or she will also perform a physical examination and order X-ray images of your abdomen to see if there are any abnormalities in your digestive tract. Further tests on samples of your blood, breath, and stool can be used to check for the type of bacteria that causes peptic ulcers.

An endoscopy of the upper digestive tract can also be used to check for abnormalities. An endoscopy requires that the doctor gently pass a small tube with a camera and biopsy tool through the esophagus and into the stomach. This allows the doctor to view the lining of the digestive tract to check for disease and to collect biopsies (tissue samples) to be tested for infection or cancer. This procedure is done while the patient is mildly sedated. An upper GI endoscopy can be used to diagnose GERD, ulcers, infection, and cancer.

When to See the Doctor

See your doctor right away if you:

  • have severe vomiting
  • vomit blood
  • have recently lost a lot of weight
  • have black stools
  • have trouble swallowing

Treatment for Indigestion

Medications are commonly used to treat indigestion, but they all have side effects. Over-the-counter antacids, such as Maalox and Mylanta, can neutralize stomach acid, but can also cause diarrhea or constipation.

H2 receptor antagonists (H2RAs), such as Zantac and Pepcid, work to reduce stomach acid. However, they can also cause:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • headache
  • bleeding or bruising

Prokinetics, such as the prescription medications Reglan and Motilium, improve the muscle action (motility) of the digestive tract, but can also cause:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • spasms or involuntary movements
  • fatigue

Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), such as Prilosec, also reduce stomach acid, but are typically stronger than H2RAs. They can also cause:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • cough
  • headache
  • backache
  • dizziness
  • abdominal pain

Both PPIs and H2 drugs are typically used to treat peptic ulcers. If the bacterium H. pylori are the cause of the ulcers, these drugs are used in combination with antibiotics, such as clarithromycin and amoxicillin.

Lifestyle Tips

You may be able to get relief from indigestion without medication. Here are some simple lifestyle changes that can help:

  • 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.