What is Indigestion?
Indigestion or dyspepsia is an uncomfortable feeling in the stomach that impairs digestive function. Although people often mistake the two, there is a difference between indigestion and heartburn. Heartburn may cause abdominal pain and feeling uncomfortably full after a patient starts eating and these symptoms are similar to dyspepsia (x). However, heartburn may also accompany indigestion. Dyspepsia is not a disease, but the condition includes a group of symptoms related to digestion. In most cases, indigestion is linked to another cause or condition, such as certain food or drinks. Medication or an infection in the body can also cause dyspepsia (x).
Causes of Indigestion
There are many different factors that can cause indigestion. For example, patients may develop it if they eat large amounts of food at a fast pace, especially spicy, fatty or greasy food. Medications, stress or drinking too much alcohol or caffeine may also cause it (x).
It may also be a result of specific health conditions or illnesses that affect the digestive tract, such as (x):
- Gallstones (x)
- Pancreatitis (x)
- Acid reflux
- Peptic ulcer disease
- Lactose intolerance
- Stomach cancer
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Anxiety and depression
Functional dyspepsia is indigestion unrelated to a stomach ulcer. It is common and it can last for long periods of time. Patients with recurring indigestion experience repeated signs and symptoms without any definite causes. However, it may be related to inflammation in the small intestine, psychological conditions, sensitivity to stomach acid or gastroparesis. In some cases, it may be a result of H. pylori infection, Salmonella, E. coli or norovirus (x).
Indigestion can cause several different symptoms. The condition may affect patients differently and not everyone will have all of the same symptoms. However, most commonly it causes (x):
- Feeling too full after a meal
- Discomfort in the upper abdomen after eating
- Burning in the upper abdomen
- Bloating from gas buildup in the abdomen
- Burping up food
- Loud gurgling in the stomach
- Chest pain and stomach pain
When to See a Doctor
Although it is uncomfortable, most of the time indigestion is not a serious condition, especially if it is functional. However, sometimes indigestion can indicate a more serious digestive issue that may require medical attention. Patients should see a doctor if they have black stools, frequent and bloody vomiting, difficulty swallowing or shortness of breath. The patient may also lose weight unintentionally and notice yellowing in the skin or the whites of the eyes (jaundice) that may indicate something serious. If the pain is very severe and does not go away, seek medical attention (x).
Indigestion may not be a serious condition, but it can be very uncomfortable. Luckily, there are several different treatment options that patients can try, depending on the cause. Treatment includes medications, dietary changes and therapy if the condition is connected to psychological symptoms.
Usually, doctors recommend antacids first to block or reduce acid in the stomach. These are over-the-counter medications, including calcium carbonate or amoxicillin. Patients may also take H2 blockers such as ranitidine or nizatidine. Proton pump inhibitors may help treat indigestion if the patient also has heartburn. If the indigestion is a result of a bacterial infection, the doctor may recommend antibiotics (x).
Since indigestion is often related to food, patients may benefit from making changes to their diets, specifically avoiding foods that cause discomfort. For example, alcohol, carbonated drinks or caffeine may trigger the symptoms or make them worse. Some foods also contain a lot of acid and this may irritate the digestive system, along with spicy, fatty and greasy food. It may be wise to avoid foods like oranges or tomato products (x).
If the patient has an underlying psychological condition like anxiety or depression, it may cause recurring indigestion. Managing stress may be an effective way to control indigestion. For example, meditation, relaxation techniques or counseling may help (x).
There are also ways that may reduce the risk of suffering from indigestion or prevent it all together. Try not to eat large amounts of food too quickly. Instead, chew slowly and thoroughly. Avoid late-night snacks so that food can digest fully and try not to lie down too soon after a meal. Wait about two to three hours. Also, limit behaviors and activities that may cause indigestion, such as smoking and exercising right after meals (x).
Supplements for Indigestion and Digestive Support
There are also some supplements that may help reduce indigestion symptoms or address its underlying causes. Supplements may also provide digestive support for other conditions, but they will not treat indigestion or any other condition. Consult a doctor before taking any supplements.
Ginger is a common cooking spice, but people may also use it as a medicine. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can protect the body from disease. It also has the potential to soothe an upset stomach and treat heartburn and acid reflux. The recommended daily dose for ginger root extract powder is 1,000 mg, unless a doctor advises against it. To avoid heartburn, take the supplement with at least 8 oz. of water.
Slippery Elm Bark
Slippery elm bark comes from a tree native to moist upland North American climates. It has a long history as a medicinal property. Native cultures use its inner bark to relieve upset stomachs and acid reflux. It may also soothe gastritis, ulcerative colitis, chronic pancreatitis, stomach ulcers and diarrhea. The recommended dose for slippery elm bark extract powder is 700 mg per day after consulting a physician.
In traditional Chinese herbal medicine, people believe that schisandra has several different potential health benefits. For example, it may help reduce menopause symptoms, boost mental and physical performance and manage stress. The dried fruit or seeds may also help indigestion and diarrhea. As a dietary supplement, the recommended serving size for schisandra extract powder is 910 mg once or twice a day with meals.
Calcium is necessary for several different bodily processes, such as bone and nervous system health. Research also states that calcium carbonate may help treat indigestion and symptoms related to it, such as heartburn or acid reflux (x). The best source of calcium is food, but some patients do not get enough of it from their diets. In these cases, there are supplements available to help. The suggested serving size for calcium carbonate powder is 1,250 mg once or twice a day or following a doctor’s instructions.
Licorice root is a common food additive for sweetening but it also has medicinal properties, including ones that may improve digestion. It has antibacterial properties that can aid with acid reflux and heartburn. Studies also reported its effects on functional dyspepsia (x). The recommended dosage for licorice root extract powder is 600 mg daily after consulting a physician for approval.
Bitter melon is a lush fruit-like gourd that may offer a variety of health benefits. It may help treat conditions like diabetes and cancer, combined with other medications and treatment methods. It also stimulates digestion and may soothe indigestion, heartburn and low stomach acidity (x). The recommended dosage for bitter melon extract powder as a supplement is 750 mg per day with meals. Make sure to consult a physician for approval first.
The Bottom Line
Indigestion is a common symptom that often accompanies different conditions or illnesses. In most cases it is not serious, although it can cause discomfort. Symptoms include heartburn, stomach pain and feeling uncomfortably full after meals. Patients may experience indigestion as a result of eating too much too quickly or consuming caffeine, carbonated drinks, alcohol and spicy or fatty foods. Treatment often includes antacid medications, H2 blockers or antibiotics if it stems from an infection. Patients can also try natural supplements that may provide digestive support. However, supplements do not treat indigestion or any other condition. Instead, they aim to improve overall health.