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Symptoms and Causes of Indigestion

Medically reviewed by Kevin Tin, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 22, 2023

If you’ve ever eaten a large meal and, shortly after, felt slightly sick, you’ve probably experienced indigestion. This is very common, especially after eating a Western-style meal rich in fat and grease. While indigestion is usually a harmless, temporary condition that goes away within a few hours, some people may experience it for longer, with more severe symptoms. And sometimes, they may in fact be suffering from a similar digestive issue, such as acid reflux or food poisoning. What are the symptoms of indigestion and related conditions, and what causes them?  


Symptoms of indigestion


Indigestion may result in the following symptoms:


  • Nausea
  • Burping
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • A burning feeling or pain in the upper abdomen
  • Feeling uncomfortably full after eating
  • A growling sensation in your stomach


What causes indigestion?


As stated above, indigestion can be caused by eating fatty, greasy, or spicy foods. But it can also be caused by:


  • Smoking
  • Drinking too much alcohol or caffeinated beverages
  • Drinking carbonated beverages
  • Experiencing stress
  • Eating acidic foods such as tomatoes or oranges
  • Eating too fast or too much

Some health problems can also result in indigestion, such as:


  • Stomach cancer
  • Gallbladder inflammation
  • Gastritis
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Peptic ulcer disease


Indigestion vs. heartburn


Sometimes, indigestion (an upset stomach) can lead to acid reflux or heartburn. Heartburn is when stomach acid makes its way to the esophagus and causes a burning sensation in the chest area. Heartburn is common in the United States, with over 60 million Americans experiencing it at least once a month. 


Heartburn can be caused by:


  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Various medications
  • Excessive alcohol or caffeine intake
  • A diet high in salt
  • Eating large meals
  • Lying down within 2 to 3 hours after eating
  • Pregnancy


However, sometimes the cause of heartburn is unknown.


Occasional heartburn is no cause for concern, but if you’ve been having acid reflux more than twice a week, you may have GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease. Medications can help control GERD, but may come with side effects. 


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GERD - Condition Overview

GERD - Condition Overview

Indigestion vs. food poisoning


While both of these are food-related issues that are usually temporary, food poisoning can be far more serious. Symptoms of mild food poisoning include:


  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach pain / cramps
  • Fever


Mild food poisoning usually resolves itself within a few days. 


Symptoms of severe food poisoning can be the same as mild food poisoning but more intense and may also include:


  • Blood in stool
  • Diarrhea lasting more than 3 days
  • Fever above 102 F
  • Dehydration 
  • Frequent vomiting; inability to keep fluids down


If you are experiencing any symptoms of severe food poisoning, contact your doctor.


How can I prevent indigestion?


To avoid indigestion, you can try:


  • Eating smaller meals
  • Limiting greasy, fatty and spicy foods
  • Avoiding acidic foods
  • Limiting alcohol and caffeine 
  • Quitting smoking
  • Eating more slowly
  • Managing stress
  • Waiting 3 hours after eating before lying down


Try taking any of the above steps if you’re suffering from indigestion. Keep in mind the difference between indigestion, acid reflux, and food poisoning, and pay attention to your symptoms in case you need to get in touch with your doctor.


Written by Natan Rosenfeld

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