Indigestion is perhaps the most common type of digestive complaint and it can be caused by a variety of different factors, from the foods we eat to an underlying medical condition like peptic ulcers. In this page, our digestive expert Ali Cullen examines the different causes of indigestion and advises when you should consult your doctor.
Alison Cullen Nutritional Practitioner, BA (Hons), DN, DNT (Distinction) @AVogelUK Ask Ali
An introduction to the causes of indigestion
Digestion symptoms are very common and indigestion is perhaps the most frequently encountered type of digestive problem.
Indigestion (or poor digestion) results when you are not able to digest the food you eat well enough. Most of us will have experienced the occasional bout of indigestion after a heavy meal – this is normal. Others suffer more persistent and regular episodes of indigestion even when eating small amounts of bland or easily digestible food.
Foods causing indigestion
Most of us will have found that some types of food can cause indigestion.
Overindulging. Consuming an excessive amount of food or alcohol, especially if done quickly, can lead to an over-distension of your stomach – a predicament caused by an increased amount of gas and fluid. This can make you feel bloated, with the feeling of the need to burp in order to release superfluous gas
Fatty or spicy foods. These require the extra secretion of gastric juice and acid for proper digestion. This can lead to heartburn if the extra acid escapes from the stomach into your gullet
Different people react differently to different foods. A food may trigger indigestion in you, but not in others. If you know a food which causes upset to your digestive system, avoid or eat less of it
Food intolerances. Some people suffer from food intolerances e.g. lactose or gluten. This occurs when your body is unable to break down a certain class of food, leading to symptoms of indigestion such as excessive flatulence or wind.
Lifestyle causes of indigestion
Lifestyle habits which encourage indigestion include:
Not sitting upright when eating. Eating whilst slumped over a desk will constrict your stomach, making it more difficult for its muscular walls to work properly
Not chewing your food well. Your digestive system will find it much easier to break down food if you have given it some help by chewing each mouthful well. Chewing also sends a message to the stomach to warn it that it will have to begin work. If you chew, your stomach will be ready to receive food
Eating in a rush. You cannot hurry your meal and chew properly, so take time to eat. As Alfred Vogel once wrote “We should not be in a hurry when we sit down to eat; in fact, we should rest for a few minutes beforehand and then enjoy our meal with a calm mind and a healthy appetite. Most gastric problems will disappear if we make an effort to be relaxed at mealtimes, eat slowly and chew the food thoroughly.,,
Skipping meals. If you do not eat for a long period of time, acid levels in your stomach will rise. This will increase the likelihood of indigestion
Drinking large amounts of fluid when eating. This dilutes the digestive enzymes and also increases the likelihood of reflux. Having just sips whilst eating will help improve your digestion.
Health conditions causing indigestion
Indigestion can be a symptom of a specific medical condition such as:
Low stomach acid (hypochlorhydria).Insufficient stomach acid means we can struggle to break the food down that we eat. This condition is often associated with further problems such as infection by H.Pylori, peptic ulcers or hiatus hernia
Peptic ulcers. These have a number of causes but are generally the result of an infection caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori which lives in the lining of the stomach. An ulcer is an open sore which develops when the lining of your stomach becomes damaged and inflamed
Gallstones. These are stones formed in the gallbladder where bile is stored. If cholesterol levels in bile are too high, the ‘extra’ is turned into gallstones. Many people have gallstones without realising it
Obesity. Being overweight puts extra pressure on the inside of your abdominal cavity. This means that the acidic contents in your stomach are more likely to be pushed up into your oesophagus, causing heartburn, especially after a large meal
Hiatus hernia. This condition occurs when part of your stomach pushes up through your diaphragm into your chest. This allows stomach acid to escape back up the oesophagus more easily (known as acid reflux), causing heartburn
Stomach cancer. While this is very rare, frequent bouts of indigestion can be associated with stomach cancer
Medication. Certain classes of medicines such as pain-killers (ibuprofen, aspirin) as well as steroids can irritate the lining of the stomach, leading to indigestion.
Most people experiencing symptoms of indigestion do not need to go to their doctor. However, if symptoms are severe or you suspect that indigestion is related to an underlying health condition, it is important to seek medical advice.
Want to improve your digestion? Get involved as our Digestion Advisor Ali Cullen takes you through her 5 step plan to improve your digestion and get problem symptoms, from bloating to acid reflux, under control.