Dr. Sarah Brewer November 20, 2017

Most people have experienced indigestion at some time – that unpleasant feeling in the upper abdomen associated with eating. You may experience feelings of distension, flatulence, nausea, pain or sensations of burning. 

What is indigestion?

Indigestion is a general term for any discomfort, felt centrally in the upper abdomen, as a result of eating.

What causes indigestion?

Indigestion can result from eating too much so the stomach becomes overfull, and from eating food that is especially rich, acidic or spicy. Indigestion becomes more common with age, as you secrete less of the stomach acid, intestinal juices, bile and pancreatic enzymes needed to break down food.

Heartburn refers to hot, burning sensations, felt behind the chest bone, which may spread upwards toward the throat (acid reflux). If persistent it may be due to a medical condition such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD), hiatus hernia or peptic ulcer.

Nausea can occur when the stomach produces hormone and nerve signals to let you know it is struggling. In some cases, this may trigger vomiting as a reflex to empty the stomach – especially if toxins are present, or you are experiencing excessive stress.

Flatulence or ‘wind’ can cause the release of gases via the mouth (belching or burping). Gases are produced in the stomach during digestion, or can result from swallowing excess air during eating, drinking fizzy drinks.

Bloating is a feeling of fullness due to an overfull stomach or distension of the small intestines from eating too much, or from swallowing air.

Abdominal pain or discomfort can be due to excessive stretching or disordered contraction of stomach muscles, or irritation of pain receptors.

Top tips for improving your digestion

Change how you eat. Rather than having 3 large meals, have five or six smaller meals throughout the day. Eat slowly, in a calm environment, and chew your food thoroughly – chewing mechanically breaks down food and mixes it with salivary enzymes to get digestion off to a good start.

Avoid triggers. Steer clear of any foods you know trigger your symptoms, such as fatty and spicy foods, processed foods or fizzy drinks.

Check your lifestyle. Indigestion can be triggered by caffeine, alcohol and smoking – yet another reason to quit.

Maintain a healthy weight. Excess pounds puts pressure on your stomach, pushing it up so that acid is more likely to reflux up into your oesophagus.

Exercise regularly. Exercise helps tone up your abdominal muscles and helps you keep off extra weight to promote better digestion.

Manage stress. Stress triggers a primitive response that reduces blood flow to the intestines and slows digestion. Take time out to relax so your stress response resets towards the rest and digest mode. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation or yoga will also help.

Alternative remedies

Probiotics aid digestion through interaction with the intestines, and by secreting their own lactic acid and enzymes.

Artichoke stimulates the production of bile to aid digestion of fatty foods and relieve bloating.

Milk thistle supports the liver and is a traditional herbal remedy used to relieve symptoms associated with over-indulgence of food and drink.

Ginger is a traditional remedy used to relieve nausea.

Peppermint oil helps to relieve intestinal spasm and flatulence.

Aloe vera has a soothing effect on the bowel.

What else could it be?

Food intolerances can lead to indigestion and bloating, especially if you are sensitive to gluten or lactose. But although going gluten free or dairy free diets is currently trendy, it’s important to note that dietary intolerances are not a common cause of indigestion.

Although symptoms of indigestion are often ‘just’ that, it’s important to remember that discomfort behind the breastbone can come from the heart so always seek advice for chest pain or tightness. And if any abdominal symptoms are persistent, always tell your doctor in case they are due to medical conditions such as gallbladder disease, liver or other abdominal problems.

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