Symptoms of indigestion and digestive problems

Published December 4, 2014

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Your digestive system works tirelessly throughout your life to break down the food you eat, extract nutrients and deliver them to your body’s cells for energy and growth. Nevertheless, sometimes things can go awry; approximately 40% of people have at least one digestive symptom at any one time,1 which may be to do with lifestyle, the foods we’ve eaten, emotional states or an underlying digestive condition.

Problems of the digestive tract may include one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Bloating – Abdominal bloating is a condition that affects the belly, it may feel full and tight, and may look distended. Bloating may be caused by any of the following:
    • swallowing air when eating.
    • constipation.
    • problems digesting certain foods, for example dairy products that contain lactose.
    • overeating.
    • bacterial overgrowth in the small bowel.
    • digestive condition such as irritable bowel syndrome2.
  • Gas (belching and flatulence) – Burping and passing gas is usually harmless and caused by swallowing air through eating or drinking too fast, or by the breakdown of certain foods by bacteria in the large intestine.3 The stomach and small intestine do not fully digest some carbohydrates found in food, which then pass into the large intestine and are broken down by bacteria that create and release gas in the process. Foods that can cause gas in some people include beans, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts, dairy products and some sugar‐free lollies.3 Sometimes gas may be accompanied by bloating or abdominal discomfort.
  • Diarrhoea – Diarrhoea is the frequent passing of loose, watery and unformed stools, which may be caused by an illness such as gastroenteritis, food poisoning, emotional stress or anxiety, overconsumption of alcohol or due to certain medicines.4 Cramping, bloating and nausea may also be present.
  • Constipation – Constipation is a condition where a person has less than three bowel motions a week or has bowel movements that are hard, dry and difficult to pass. Constipation is caused by the stool sitting too long in the large intestine, which may be due to a low fibre diet, a lack of physical activity, changes to daily routine or an underlying digestive problem.5
  • Nausea and vomiting – Nausea is an unsettled feeling in the stomach together with an urge to vomit. It may be caused by gastroenteritis, food poisoning and pregnancy or may occur as a side effect of a migraine.6
  • Abdominal discomfort – Abdominal discomfort often occurs with indigestion which may be triggered by overindulgence, eating too fast, eating spicy or greasy foods, consuming too much alcohol and caffeine or due to stress.7 Discomfort may also be present with any of the symptoms above.
  • Burning sensation – A feeling of heat or burning in the upper belly is another symptom of indigestion and is felt when the contents of the stomach rise into the oesophagus. Occasional heartburn may be caused by eating too much, exercising, lifting or bending after a large meal, consuming too much coffee or alcohol, stress and anxiety, pregnancy or due to being overweight.8

Many of these symptoms are unpleasant but bearable and should subside with time, but if you feel very unwell or your symptoms are persistent, it’s important that you consult your healthcare professional for advice.

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