Who can resist indulging in their favorite greasy, guilty pleasures at the state fair or a fiery curry dinner that’s loaded with spicy veggies? Foods like these taste amazing going down, but they don’t always feel so great when your body starts processing them.
Your stomach might feel uncomfortably full (even if the meal wasn’t huge), you might experience some blush-inducing gas, or you might have a burning sensation. It’s called indigestion, and it shows up in a variety of ways. But what causes indigestion?
“Indigestion is really interesting because it covers a lot of real estate in the digestive system,” explains Will Bulsiewicz, MD, the board-certified practicing gastroenterologist behind the popular gut health Instagram account @theguthealthmd. “Lots of different things can cause indigestion, and even the way you choose to define it can vary quite a bit.”
Indigestion certainly isn’t comfortable, but you’re not alone in the experience: Roughly 1 in 4 Americans experience indigestion every year, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Here’s what you need to know about this all-too-common experience, from what causes indigestion, symptoms to watch out for, treatment options for uncomfortable digestion, and when to see a doctor.
What is indigestion?
You’ve heard the term countless times, and you might even be experiencing it yourself. But what exactly is indigestion?
“Indigestion is a really broad term,” says Bulsiewicz. “In general, I describe it as a feeling of discomfort after you consume food.”
While indigestion symptoms can vary from person to person, they often include pain in the abdomen, dull burning in the chest, feeling overly full, nausea, gas, and/or bloating. It’s one of those you-know-it-when-you-have-it conditions.
However, keep in mind that indigestion itself isn’t a disease. Also known as dyspepsia, indigestion is a symptom of something else. This is why it’s important to identify the root of your discomfort so you can find the right treatment options for you.
What foods cause indigestion?
You might notice that every time you eat a specific kind of food, like citrus fruits or a spicy tuna roll (extra wasabi, please!), you experience digestion that’s, ahem, less than pleasant. It’s not surprising, though—certain foods and even some drinks are known to trigger uncomfortable symptoms in some people.
“Spicy foods and acidic foods, such as tomato sauce, classically make indigestion worse because they increase the acidity in the stomach,” says Bulsiewicz.
If you experience symptoms of indigestion after a spicy meal every once in a while, it’s probably not cause for major concern.
“Everyone is prone to overdoing it on food at times. You could be a perfectly healthy person, go to Mexican a restaurant and have too many jalapeños and maybe not feel well afterward. That could be the source of your indigestion,” says Bulsiewicz.
However, chronic indigestion after meals might indicate that foods are aggravating an underlying health issue.
“If you have certain conditions that worsen when you have increased acidity, you’ll have an intensification of pain after you eat anything acidic,” explains Bulsiewicz. “There’s a point at which it crosses the line from sporadic to something you can reproduce. For example, I could drink orange juice all day long and be fine, but there are people with symptoms that flare up after just one glass.”
Keep track of when you feel indigestion, and work with your doctor to determine whether a more serious health concern should be addressed.
Indigestion isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom of something else. For a portion of people who experience indigestion, that something else might be a health condition that needs medical attention.
Another potential cause of indigestion could be how you’re eating.
In today’s fast-paced world, who isn’t scarfing down big meals at lightning speed? Your dining behaviors not only limit how much you enjoy the food you’re eating, they also might be what’s causing your post-meal abdominal pain. (Talk about #saddesklunch!)
Wolfing down food too quickly, laughing a lot while you’re eating, drinking through a straw, and consuming carbonated beverages can cause you to actually swallow air (a condition known as aerophagia), says Bulsiewicz. And that air needs to come out—somehow, some way.
“The air is either going to be belched out or wiggle through your intestines and come out your bottom,” says Bulsiewicz.
The way your body processes and releases the air can cause gastrointestinal discomfort, including abdominal pain, bloating, and other indigestion symptoms. Consider this just one more reason to support the worldwide movement to ban plastic straws—and additional motivation to kick your diet soda habit.
Certain health conditions can cause indigestion.
Remember: Indigestion isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom of something else. For a portion of people who experience indigestion, that something else might be a health condition that needs medical attention.
“When people think about indigestion, the first thing that comes to mind for both patients and doctors is the question of an ulcer,” says Bulsiewicz. “But it takes a lot of skill on the part of the doctor to peel back the layers to figure out what might really be causing someone’s indigestion.”
Health issues in the stomach may be to blame for your indigestion. The doctor may check to see if you have a Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection or gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining). Your physician may determine you have functional dyspepsia (stomach pain that’s not related to an ulcer).
“Another fairly common cause of indigestion is constipation,” he says. “It can cause abdominal discomfort and pain, nausea, gas, and bloating.”
Sometimes your indigestion might not be rooted in stomach or intestinal issues at all. Instead, another organ might be causing the discomfort you feel after mealtimes.
“If your gallbladder isn’t functioning properly, it could give you discomfort in your upper abdomen, which many people think is their stomach,” says Bulsiewicz. “Indigestion might also be a symptom of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. While commonly seen in people with a history of alcohol abuse, this condition also occurs in people with type 2 diabetes and people who are aging. You stop producing enough digestive juice in your pancreas, and that can cause pain.”
Finally, indigestion is also a common complaint among pregnant women.
“There’s no one cause for indigestion during pregnancy,” explains Bulsiewicz. “Altered hormones, the baby and uterus pushing up on the stomach, and relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter can all contribute to these symptoms.”
So, how can you figure out what causes indigestion in your body? Start by tracking your indigestion (what time of day it occurs, what you ate right before) so you can learn what’s triggering it, and see your doctor for a proper diagnosis.
Diagnosing What Causes Indigestion
Infrequent cases of fleeting indigestion are generally not something to be alarmed about (even though getting through it is no picnic!). But when does this problem move beyond uncomfortable annoyance and into the realm of serious health concern? Bulsiewicz recommends watching out for the following conditions:
- Your indigestion becomes a chronic, recurrent problem
- It goes on for more than a few weeks
- Your indigestion intensifies or becomes more painful
- You start losing weight
- You feel fatigued, weak, or lightheaded
- You see blood in your vomit or stool
“All of those would be reasons to get your indigestion checked out by a doctor,” he says.
Your physician may use an upper endoscopy to start looking for clues as to what’s causing your uncomfortable digestion.
“It’s the single most powerful [tool] we have to diagnose this symptom, but it doesn’t provide all of the answers,” says Bulsiewicz.
Depending on what the doctor finds with the upper endoscopy, you may have a diagnosis relatively quickly. Otherwise, you may need to undergo additional procedures, such as a blood test, to figure out what’s going on.
Finding the cause of indigestion isn’t always easy, but as soon as you have the right diagnosis, you can work on starting the proper treatment—and ultimately finding relief.
What’s the best treatment for indigestion?
First, you need to determine if it’s just a random case of indigestion (which everyone gets from time to time) or it’s related to a more severe health issue. If it’s the former, popping a couple of Tums might do the trick.
“Tums are great when you have symptoms and you want to get rid of them,” says Bulsiewicz. “It won’t prevent symptoms or heal an underlying cause, but it’s a fine option to use as needed.”
Stronger indigestion medication might be necessary if you’re experiencing more frequent symptoms. Prilosec, Pepcid, and Zantac are all potential options for relieving the discomfort of indigestion, says Bulsiewicz.
“Pick up an acid-reducing medicine over the counter and do a trial for two weeks to see what happens,” he says. “I would not treat yourself at home for more than two weeks.” If the problem is still occurring after a couple of weeks, or your symptoms worsen, it’s time to get checked out by a doctor.
Remember: If you occasionally experience discomfort after eating, you probably don’t have a more serious underlying condition. If your indigestion is frequent, though, or if you start feeling worse, it could be related to something beyond eating one-too-many jalapeños. If you think your indigestion may be indicative of a more serious issue, see a doctor right away to pinpoint the problem and get on the road to feeling better.