What Causes Indigestion?

Poor eating habits, chronic digestive diseases, vices, and medications are four of the most common causes of indigestion.

Indigestion is a common gut and bowel condition (not a disease) characterised by pain in the upper abdomen, heartburn, and bloating, among others. It is also known as dyspepsia. In Australia, the prevalence of indigestion ranges from 24% to 38%.

On top of stomach pain and bloating, individuals who suffer from indigestion may also experience:

  • vomiting
  • tasting a bitter substance in the mouth
  • rumbling sounds in the stomach
  • releasing gas, whether through burping or passing wind
  • nausea
  • heartburn that usually occurs after a meal
  • food going up the throat

Feelings of discomfort also accompany these symptoms, namely:

  • feeling full even before you have finished your meal
  • feeling uncomfortably full after you have finished your meal
  • feeling a painful (burning or gnawing) sensation in the oesophagus or stomach

Let us now explore the four major causes of indigestion and how you can address them.

1. Poor eating habits

One consequence of living in a time-poor society such as ours is a higher tendency to develop poor eating habits. Eating too fast and consuming “convenient” fast foods and drinks pose a bigger risk for indigestion, not to mention other health issues.

Wolfing down your lunch to make it to your next client meeting on time is a recipe for a digestive disaster as it increases the amount of air you swallow. This increased amount of gas will go to your digestive system and lead to bloating and flatulence.

So eat slowly and cherish every bite! Taste every flavour in every spoonful of food you put in your mouth. Devote at least 20 to 30 minutes for every meal. This will minimise your risk for bloating and other symptoms of indigestion.

To further lower your risk for indigestion, limit your consumption of:

  • fatty foods
  • greasy foods
  • spicy foods

Fatty and greasy foods—which perfectly describe foods served by fast food joints—are indigestion triggers. Aside from heartburn, they can also cause acid reflux by stopping your lower oesophageal sphincter from fully closing. When this happens, it produces a channel where your stomach acids can flow back up.

Spicy foods can also trigger indigestion, particularly heartburn. Most spicy foods contain capsaicin (extracted from chilli peppers) which may slow down the digestion of foods. Slower digestion translates to a higher risk for heartburn. These foods also tend to worsen the inflammation in your oesophagus and heartburn symptoms.

Lastly, avoid lying down right after eating. This will make it more difficult for your body to digest food. Instead of lying down, spend an extra 10 to 15 minutes sitting down or go for a relaxing post-meal walk.

2. Chronic digestive diseases

The symptoms of indigestion are more often experienced by individuals who have been diagnosed with:

  • bile or pancreatic duct irregularities
  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD)
  • Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infections such as peptic ulcers
  • hiatus hernia
  • stomach cancer

Individuals with any of these diseases already have compromised digestive systems. Their risk for indigestion is higher because they either have sensitive oesophagi and/or stomachs or a higher risk for having them. The symptoms of these diseases also mimic that of indigestion.

Abnormalities in the pancreatic duct—which plays a role in the digestion of foods—can lead to pancreatitis, the symptoms of which are similar to indigestion. Likewise, GORD is marked by stomach acids going back up your throat, heartburn and vomiting. Peptic ulcers (sores in your digestive tract) also include symptoms such as abdominal pain, constant burping and nausea.

Individuals with hiatus hernia tend to experience heartburn after finishing a meal and acid reflux, which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Stomach cancer patients also experience abdominal pain after eating, heartburn, nausea and vomiting.

3. Vices

Excessive drinking and smoking are linked to indigestion.

Alcohol is a notorious irritant of the digestive tract, particularly the oesophagus and stomach. This explains why an episode of acid reflux and/or heartburn usually follows after you consume alcoholic drinks. Whether you’re swigging a bottle of beer, wine or any hard drink, the result is the same: acid reflux and heartburn.

Alcoholic beverages can relax your lower oesophageal sphincter to the point where stomach acids can flow back up to your oesophagus. When this happens, heartburn typically follows. Beer and wine also increase your stomach acid, which can heighten your risk for heartburn. Drinking too much alcohol can also damage your oesophageal lining and make it more sensitive to stomach acid over time.

Smoking is another vice that contributes to indigestion. The toxic chemicals from cigarette smoke relax your oesophageal sphincter, causing acid reflux. This nasty habit also puts you at a higher risk for Crohn’s disease, GORD, pancreatitis, and peptic ulcers.

4. Medications

Certain medicines and supplements, unfortunately, seem to trigger symptoms of indigestion. Individuals who suffer from indigestion are usually advised to avoid or exercise caution when taking:

  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or painkillers (e.g., aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen)
  • some antibiotics including clindamycin and tetracycline
  • iron and potassium dietary supplements
  • opioids that contain acetaminophen and hydrocodone
  • sedatives and tranquillisers such as diazepam and temazepambl

Aspirin carries with it some nasty side effects including bleeding, heartburn and GORD. Even the low dosage of “baby aspirin”, when taken over several months, can irritate your stomach lining.

Meanwhile, the antibiotics and supplements mentioned above can stress your oesophageal lining, resulting in heartburn. Opioids, sedatives and tranquillisers can worsen your acid reflux and exacerbate GORD symptoms.

Lifestyle Changes for Relief

Stress makes indigestion worse, so reducing it or learning how to manage it better can improve your symptoms. Getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight will also help reduce the severity of your symptoms.

Know When to Get Help

Consult your doctor or dietitian if you experience chronic, severe and persistent symptoms. Seek help immediately if you have the following signs:

  • black stools
  • bloody vomit
  • difficulty in swallowing
  • sudden and unexplained weight loss

Need Our Help?

Book an appointment with an accredited dietitian or nutritionist by phone on (07) 3071-7405 between 8am and 6pm Monday to Friday or send us an enquiry. You may also want to learn more about our digestive health services.