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12th January, 20215 min read

What causes indigestion?

Medical reviewer: Dr Ann Nainan
Author: Helen Prentice
Last reviewed: 30/12/2020
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable after eating, you’re not alone. Most people will get indigestion (dyspepsia) from time to time.

Indigestion refers to symptoms that usually occur after eating or drinking, especially discomfort and pain in the top part of your tummy. Other symptoms include feeling full and bloated, or sick (nauseous).

You can also get a bitter taste in your mouth or a burning feeling in your chest (heartburn), caused by stomach acid rising up into your throat. This is known as ‘acid reflux’.

Thankfully, there are things you can do to help you to cope with these symptoms. Being aware of what might be causing your indigestion is also important, to help you avoid getting it again. Read on to learn more about the most common causes, and what you can do about them.

Food and drink

Certain foods and drinks are more likely to cause indigestion. They include:

  • spicy or fatty foods
  • citrus fruits, such as oranges
  • onions
  • fizzy drinks
  • coffee and other drinks that contain caffeine
  • alcohol

These foods can slow down the speed at which your stomach empties, which can cause acid reflux – so you may want to cut down on them. Eating too fast can trigger indigestion, too.

If you’re getting indigestion regularly, you could keep a food and drink diary to help you work out what’s causing it. Then you’ll know which foods you should try to avoid.

Being overweight

Carrying extra weight around your tummy puts more pressure on your stomach. This extra pressure can cause acid reflux, especially after you’ve eaten a large meal.

If you’re overweight and have indigestion, it’s a good idea to try to lose some weight and stick to a healthy diet. Eating smaller meals can also help, as well as not eating too close to bedtime.

If you’re getting indigestion at night, try to sleep in a more upright position – it may help to raise the head of your bed with bricks or a block of wood.

Smoking

Smoking can weaken the band of muscle between your stomach and food pipe, which helps keep things in your stomach – so you’re more likely to get acid reflux if you smoke. It also reduces your stomach’s ability to repair itself.

Many people find that eating becomes more enjoyable when they stop smoking – they’re less likely to get indigestion, and food even tastes better. You can find tips to help you quit here.

Stress and anxiety

Acid reflux can be more common when you’re feeling particularly stressed. And if you’re feeling anxious, you might also get a sense of unease in your tummy. That’s because your digestive system is very sensitive – worry can make it slow down, which can lead to bloating and pain.

If you’re getting indigestion frequently, it might be worth thinking about whether stress or anxiety are playing a part. If so, there are things you can try to help, such as mindfulness or other stress-relieving activities.

Pregnancy

It’s common to get heartburn and indigestion when you’re pregnant, particularly from 27 weeks onwards, as your growing baby presses on your tummy. Changing hormone levels during pregnancy can also cause the band of muscle between your stomach and food pipe to relax, leading to acid reflux.

If you feel very uncomfortable or are in pain, speak to a pharmacist or doctor – they will be able to suggest treatments that can be used when you’re pregnant.

Medicines

Some types of medication can cause indigestion.

Medicines used to widen your blood vessels, called nitrates, can relax the band of muscle between your stomach and food pipe, causing acid reflux. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can also affect your digestive tract.

If you’re taking these drugs and getting indigestion, seek medical advice. It’s important not to stop taking prescribed medicines unless your doctor tells you to.

When to see a doctor

You can often manage indigestion yourself by making some lifestyle changes, or a pharmacist can recommend medicines to help ease your symptoms.

Sometimes, however, indigestion symptoms can be a sign of something more serious. You should speak to your doctor if you:

  • are in a lot of pain
  • get indigestion frequently
  • are losing a lot of weight without trying to
  • are having problems swallowing
  • feel a lump in your stomach
  • are older than 55
  • are being sick (vomiting) a lot
  • have iron-deficiency anaemia
  • have blood in your vomit or poo

Occasionally, people get indigestion-type symptoms when they’re having a heart attack. Usually there will be other signs, too, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating or a fast heart beat (palpitations). If you have any of these symptoms with indigestion, seek emergency medical help.

Key points

  • indigestion is common and most people get it at some point
  • it includes symptoms such as tummy pain, bloating, feeling sick and acid reflux
  • knowing what causes indigestion can help you avoid it
  • some foods and drinks are more likely to cause indigestion
  • lifestyle factors such as being overweight, smoking or stress can play a part
  • indigestion is common during pregnancy
  • some medicines can cause indigestion
  • if you’re in a lot of pain, or have other symptoms as well, you should see a doctor
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Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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