What is indigestion?

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Nearly everyone has experienced indigestion at some time, often after a heavy meal or if you’ve had too much to eat or drink. It’s a feeling of mild discomfort in the upper belly or abdomen that occurs during or immediately after eating. Indigestion, or dyspepsia as it’s also known, may also cause you to experience:1

  • A feeling of heat or burning in the area between the navel and lower part of the breastbone.
  • An uncomfortable feeling of fullness that comes on soon after a meal begins or when the meal is over.

These symptoms may also be accompanied by bloating, reflux, belching or nausea.2

What causes indigestion?

Indigestion that’s persistent or occurs with other concerning symptoms, may indicate an underlying health condition. This should be investigated by your GP. If you only have indigestion occasionally and it subsides with time, then it might be triggered by certain diet and lifestyle factors, for example:

  • Overindulgence1 – Overeating can put a strain on the digestive tract and cause symptoms of indigestion, which is why it’s a common complaint around the festive season or after a visit to an all‐you‐can‐eat restaurant.
  • Eating too fast1 – When you rush a meal you increase your risk of indigestion.
  • Eating spicy, fatty or greasy foods1 – Certain foods can trigger indigestion symptoms in some people. Fatty or spicy foods are the usual culprits.
  • Drinking too much alcohol or caffeine1 – Excess alcohol, coffee and other caffeinated beverages can cause indigestion in susceptible people. This is because they tend to relax or weaken the band of muscle that acts as a valve between the stomach and oesophagus (lower oesophageal sphincter). This can cause stomach contents to rise up into the oesophagus and cause the tell‐tale burning sensation.
  • Stress or nervousness1 – Digestive function can be influenced by your emotional state. Eating when you’re stressed or nervous can cause indigestion or make symptoms worse.
  • Being overweight – If you’re carrying excess weight, you’re more likely to experience indigestion, particularly after a large meal because of increased pressure on the stomach.2
  • Smoking – If you smoke, the chemicals you inhale may contribute to your symptoms. These chemicals can relax the oesophageal sphincter, causing acid reflux and the associated burning feeling.2
  • Use of some medicines – Some medicines may affect general digestive function or relax/weaken the oesophageal sphincter causing indigestion.2
  • Pregnancy – During the middle and latter part of pregnancy, many women experience indigestion. This is believed to be caused by the pressure of the expanding uterus on the stomach and also to pregnancy‐related hormones, which relax the muscles of the digestive tract.3

How can I reduce indigestion?

The best way to reduce the risk of indigestion is to avoid the foods and situations that seem to cause it. Here are some general suggestions:

  • Eat smaller meals to reduce the burden on your digestive tract.
  • Eat slowly and chew your food mindfully.
  • Avoid heavy, fatty or spicy foods if they seem to cause your symptoms.
  • Try stress management techniques such as yoga or meditation if stress is a trigger for you.
  • Cut back on alcohol and caffeine consumption.
  • Avoid smoking
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Avoid wearing tight‐fitting clothing when eating as it can put extra pressure on the stomach.
  • Try not to exercise on a full stomach
  • Consider digestive support supplements with herbs such as fenugreek, ginger or slippery elm.
  • Consult your healthcare professional if you’re symptoms are persistent or if you’re concerned about you’re medicines.

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Published December 2, 2014
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