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Also called dyspepsia, indigestion is a general term used to describe discomfort felt centrally in the upper abdomen. This includes feelings of distension, flatulence, nausea, acidity and abdominal pain, which may be due to irritation of the stomach lining, trapped 'wind' or excessive contraction of the stomach wall.
Indigestion can also result from insufficient production of stomach acid, bile or pancreatic secretions, all of which become increasingly common with age.
Reduced production of stomach acid (hypochlorhydria) or even a total lack of acid production (achlorhydria) affects as many as one in five people in their 50s, rising to almost one in three of those aged 60 or more.1
This is a more specific term for hot, burning sensations, felt behind the chest bone, which may spread up toward the throat. The usual cause of heartburn is acid reflux.
During acid reflux, the stomach contents pass up into the oesophagus, the tube connecting the mouth and stomach. This brings stomach acids and enzymes into contact with the sensitive lining of the oesophagus, which as well as causing burning, can trigger the painful spasm of surrounding muscles.
GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) is the chronic, more severe form of acid reflux.
Normally, acid reflux is prevented by a valve-like mechanism between the stomach and oesophagus which pinches the lower oesophagus closed. This mechanism can fail with age, in people with a hiatus hernia (in which part of the stomach slips up through a natural gap in the diaphragm to enter the chest cavity) or due to increased pressure on the stomach – for example from pregnancy or being overweight.
Some people with acid reflux do not experience obvious symptoms and this 'silent reflux' may contribute to some cases of hoarseness, voice problems, cough, sensations of a lump in the throat and repeated throat-clearing.
Certain lifestyle changes can help manage digestive symptoms:
Watching what you eat can also make a big difference:
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.
1Krasinski, D.D. et al. (1986). Fundic atrophic gastritis in an elderly population. Effect on hemoglobin and several serum nutritional indicators. J Am Geriatr Soc 34(11)
2Fraser-Moodie, C.A. et al. (1999). Weight loss has an independent beneficial effect on symptoms of gastro-oesophageal reflux in patients who are overweight. Scand J Gastroenterol 34(4)
3Thomas, F.B. et al. (1980). Inhibitory effect of coffee on lower esophageal sphincter pressure. Gastroenterology 79(6)
4Chen, Y.H. et al. (2019). Probiotic Lactobacillus spp. act Against Helicobacter pylori-induced Inflammation. j Clin Med 14;8(1)