What is indigestion (dyspepsia)?
Indigestion (dyspepsia) usually appears as a symptom of an underlying issue such as gastroesophageal reflux disease and is not usually considered a condition in itself.
Indigestion is a common medical problem that affects a large number of people around the world. In the majority of cases, it is mild and does not occur regularly. If this applies to you then the good news is that you should not worry too much. The only time to get concerned is when it is more severe and regular. But what is indigestion? What causes it and what can you do about it?
Indigestion is pain or discomfort in your upper abdomen or a burning sensation in the area behind your breastbone. Known as functional dyspepsia or heartburn respectively, some people who suffer from indigestion can feel both of these types at the same time. Many people who suffer from this condition will have indigestion after eating or drinking.
What are the symptoms of indigestion?
The common symptoms of indigestion can often include one or more of the following:
- Belching and flatulence
- Food or drink coming back into your gullet after being consumed
- Feeling full or bloated after eating or drinking
- Upper abdominal pain
- A burning feeling in the upper abdomen
- Bloating and discomfort in your upper abdomen
- Feelings of sickness or nausea
If you experience any of the above symptoms, especially after eating or drinking, then you may have indigestion. However, other symptoms that are commonly associated with indigestion are unrelated; for example, back pain and stomach ache are likely to be constipation.
What causes indigestion?
Acid in your stomach coming into contact with the protective lining of your digestive system is the most common problem to cause indigestion. This digestive system lining is actually very sensitive and the presence of stomach acid next to it is the root cause of indigestion. The net effect of this is that the stomach acid attacks your protective digestive lining and causes inflammation or pain in your body.
However, indigestion has many potential causes. While the majority of indigestion cases are caused by the food and drink people consume (spicy food being a great example), there are other triggers. For some people, indigestion may be caused as a result of drinking too much alcohol or smoking. As acid reflux is considered to be a very similar condition to indigestion, it may also be worth cutting out foods that can cause acid reflux.
As well as cutting certain foods out of your diet, it may also be worth introducing healthier foods that are known to help with acid reflux, heartburn and indigestion.
The most common causes of indigestion are:
- Certain types of medication
- Lifestyle choices such as drinking too much alcohol, smoking and poor diet, such as eating a lot of fatty foods)
There are also underlying illnesses that can cause indigestion, including:
- Hiatus hernia (where the stomach bulges up into the chest)
- Stomach ulcer
- Cancer of the stomach
- A bacterial infection known as helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). This can lead to gastritis)
- GORD (acid reflux)
It is also found that certain medications, stress and pregnancy can help to bring it on.
Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) can cause recurring attacks of indigestion due to the bacteria causing the stomach lining to become inflamed. This form of gastritis is more likely to occur in older people.
How are people with indigestion diagnosed?
If you are suffering with indigestion symptoms, you should seek medical attention to get the problem diagnosed.
To reach a diagnosis or treatment plan, your doctor will likely ask you questions about your medical history, your eating habits and the types of food you have been eating. Indigestion symptoms may require your doctor to order an X-ray of your abdomen or small intestine; this will check to see if you have any abnormalities in your digestive tract.
You may also have an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy to check the upper digestive tract for symptoms of other conditions you may be suffering from.
An endoscopy involves a small tube with a biopsy tool and a camera being passed through the oesophagus and into your stomach. Once this tube is in your stomach, the doctor is able to examine the lining of the digestive tract to check for disease and collect tissue samples. You will be given a mild sedative if you need to have an endoscopy.
By having an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy, this will help your doctor to diagnose various health problems, including:
- Inflammatory diseases
- Reflux esophagitis
Treatment for indigestion
The good news for most people with this problem is that you can easily treat indigestion at home. This could include changing your lifestyle or diet, for example, to cut out things that trigger it. You can also buy antacid medication to use at home, which provides relief when indigestion flares up. These antacids usually come in tablet form; they are easy to take and also taste nice.
If you find that lifestyle changes and over the counter medications do not help with the symptoms you are experiencing, your doctor may choose to prescribe stronger prescription medicines, such as Omeprazole 20mg tablets for excessive stomach acid/acid reflux (GERD) or Lansoprazole 30mg to ease the symptoms of acid reflux, which will provide more effective relief from your symptoms. These medicines belong to a group of drugs known as Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs), which work to ease acid reflux by reducing excessive stomach acid.
Some cases of indigestion can be more serious though and require a visit to your doctor. If any of the following apply and you have regular indigestion, we recommend seeing your GP as soon as possible:
- You are 55 years old or older
-You have shed a lot of weight without trying to
- You are finding it harder and harder to swallow
- You are vomiting constantly
- You suspect you have anaemia
- You have found a lump in the stomach area
- You notice blood in your stools or vomit
If any of the above apply with recurring indigestion, you should see your doctor urgently. This is because another underlying health condition may actually be causing all the other symptoms. In these cases, an endoscopy is normally performed which allows specialist medical staff to see into your body.
Severe long-term indigestion can eventually cause issues with parts of your digestive system which are hard to repair. This could be scarring of your oesophagus or problems with the passage of food from the stomach.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I ease my belching and bloating?
Belching and bloating are common symptoms of indigestion. The common cause of belching is swallowing an excessive amount of air.
To avoid swallowing too much air, you should not:
- Eat or drink too quickly
- Drink fizzy beverages
- Chew gum
The gas in your bowel is made by the food you eat being broken down by bacteria in the gut. Certain types of foods that give you gas can include lactose (the natural sugar in milk) and certain vegetables.
How do you get indigestion to go away?
Certain lifestyle changes can prove to be an effective treatment for indigestion for many people. For example, cutting down on carbonated beverages and spicy and fatty foods can help many people to reduce their symptoms of indigestion (dyspepsia).
If you consume excessive amounts of alcohol or smoke, giving up these habits may also ease your indigestion.
If you suffer indigestion after eating, you should try an antacid medicine to see if this eases your symptoms. These can be bought without a prescription from your local pharmacy or supermarket.
If your abdominal pain or other symptoms persist, you should make an appointment to see your doctor for a medical diagnosis or treatment. You can buy medicine for indigestion symptoms at Medicine Direct after an online consultation with one of our registered doctors. They may prescribe you a medicine such as Omeprazole or Lansoprazole; these Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs) help to reduce stomach acid, thus helping to relieve the burning feeling and other symptoms that come with indigestion.
What foods can cause indigestion?
There are several different types of food which can cause indigestion, although not everyone suffers from indigestion symptoms as a result of eating these types of food.
Nonetheless, indigestion is often caused by eating or drinking one or more of the following:
- Fatty foods (bacon, desserts, fatty or fried cuts of meat, full-fat dairy products, etc.)
- Caffeine (such as tea and coffee)
- Citrus fruits, including tomatoes
- Mint and products that have mint flavouring, such as chewing gum and breath mints
- Spicy food
- Garlic and onions
Can indigestion feel like a heart attack?
Heartburn often comes as a symptom of indigestion. The symptoms of heartburn and a heart attack may feel very similar as both conditions cause chest pain. Not even doctors may be able to tell the difference immediately.
If you have persistent or severe pain in your chest, you should call 999 straight away. Do not take the risk that it may not be a heart attack. Medical professionals will be able to conduct tests to diagnose the cause of your pain. Testing will be able to rule out a heart attack if you are not suffering from one.
While you should not ignore chest pain, knowing the difference between heartburn and heart attack symptoms can be beneficial. Indigestion may also be a symptom of a heart attack in some cases.
You are likely to be suffering from heartburn if you have the following symptoms:
- A burning feeling in your upper abdomen, which moves up into the chest
- It occurs after eating or while bending over or lying down
- It may wake you up, especially if you have eaten shortly before going to bed
- Taking antacids can improve the problem
- You may have a sour taste in your mouth
- Small amounts of your stomach contents may travel up to the back of your throat
You may be having a heart attack and should dial 999 if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Pressure, tightness, a severe pain, crushing or aching feeling in your chest; this may spread to your arms, jaw or back
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweat
- Feeling light-headed or dizzy
- Nausea, indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pains
Why is indigestion common in pregnancy?
Indigestion (dyspepsia) can affect between three and eight in every 10 women in the UK at some stage of their pregnancy. In most cases, a rise in a woman's hormone levels causes indigestion during pregnancy. This rise in hormones makes the valve between the oesophagus and the stomach relax more than usual, which means that some of your stomach contents may travel back up into the oesophagus (reflux).
Indigestion in pregnancy can also be caused by the baby pressing against your stomach as it grows in the womb.
If you are pregnant and suffer from indigestion, you may have pain or discomfort in your upper abdomen or chest; this may be accompanied by heartburn, nausea or belching. These symptoms may start at any point during the pregnancy, but should go away after you have given birth. You are more at risk of suffering from indigestion during your pregnancy if you had bouts of it before you became pregnant, or if you suffered from it in a past pregnancy.
Seek medical advice from your doctor or midwife about how you can treat indigestion safely while you are pregnant. They may recommend alginates, which are normally safe for pregnant women to take.
How do you know if you are having indigestion?
Indigestion (dyspepsia) comes with various symptoms, so if you are exhibiting one or more of the following after eating, you may well be suffering from a bout of indigestion:
- You feel sick
- You are feeling full or bloated
- You have excessive wind (belching and/or farting)
- You have heartburn (a burning feeling in your chest which commonly comes after eating)
- You bring up some of your stomach contents or a bitter-tasting fluid into your mouth
What can I do if my indigestion is caused by GORD?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD) is when acid rises from your stomach and into your oesophagus, which is the tube that links your throat to your stomach. This problem may be caused by the valve between your stomach and oesophagus becoming weak or relaxing too often. Acid reflux may cause an acidic taste in your mouth or a burning feeling in your upper abdomen.
If you have mild symptoms of GORD, antacids may be able to treat them by neutralising your stomach acid.
There are several medicines available for people who have already been diagnosed with GORD, which can be bought over the counter. If you have not been diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease, you should seek medical advice from your doctor. They will be able to recommend appropriate medicines for you to use.
Some of these medicines may contain alginate, which can form a protective barrier over the contents of your stomach to prevent acid reflux. Some belong to a class of medicines known as Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs), which work to stop your stomach from producing excessive amounts of acid. Some of these medicines are available over the counter, which you can take for a course of four weeks; if you feel you need to keep taking them for longer than this, you will need to speak to your doctor, who will talk you through the possible side effects and potential pros and cons of using this medication long-term.
Certain foods, such as those which are spicy, acidic or high in fat, can also make your symptoms more severe and cause greater discomfort. Many people find it to be very beneficial to keep a diary of what they eat, so they can spot a correlation between what they eat and when they suffer from discomfort; this helps to identify the foods that can cause indigestion to occur. Stopping smoking, losing weight (if you are overweight) and cutting down on how much alcohol you drink can also lessen your symptoms. Try to eat smaller meals and avoid eating anything substantial in the two hours before you go to bed.
Why do I always get heartburn at night?
You can get a bout of heartburn at any time of the day or night, but it is generally worse when you are lying down. For this reason, the discomfort is much more noticeable when you are trying to go to sleep.
Bending over or straining to go to the toilet may also make the symptoms of heartburn worse.
What other health problems can cause indigestion?
Indigestion has many different causes.
In some cases, it can be caused by existing health problems, including:
- Stomach ulcers
- GORD (acid reflux)
- Hiatus hernia
- The helicobacter pylori infection (H. pylori), which causes inflammation of the stomach lining
- Stomach cancer
- H. pylori can also lead to gastritis.
You are also more likely to suffer from indigestion if you are currently pregnant, due to the baby pressing against your stomach. Certain medicines can also make this condition worse.