Indigestion – also called dyspepsia – is an extremely common ailment that sometimes happens after eating. It occurs when the lining of the upper part of the digestive tract (stomach, duodenum of the bowel and oesophagus) gets irritated by stomach acid or stretched by overeating.

While indigestion itself may be a symptom of an underlying digestive disorder, like gastritis, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD or GERD) or ulcers, many known triggers are lifestyle related. Common indigestion causes include:

  • Stress
  • Overeating or eating too quickly
  • Spicy, fatty and greasy foods
  • Too much caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Carbonated drinks
  • High fibre foods
  • Smoking
  • The use of some medications, like aspirin or steroids
  • It tends to be common in pregnancy.

What are its symptoms?

Indigestion symptoms include:

  • Bloating or feelings of being over full after a meal
  • A burning sensation in the abdomen or chest
  • Nausea
  • Discomfort or pain between the solar plexus and navel
  • Burping/belching
  • Bringing up food when belching
  • A ‘growling’ stomach.

While indigestion and heartburn can occur alongside each other, it is important to note that they are not the same thing and are, in fact, separate conditions altogether.

How is it diagnosed?

Indigestion is usually mild or infrequent enough, oftentimes resolving on its own, that it doesn’t warrant a trip to the doctor.

In cases where the discomfort is frequent or severe enough to require an appointment with your healthcare practitioner, they will usually perform a physical examination and take a detailed history, focusing specifically on lifestyle, what medications you use and whether there are any other symptoms.

Based on this, more tests may be ordered to determine whether the indigestion is symptomatic of another disorder or not. This may include blood tests, endoscopy or imaging tests like ultrasound.

What are your treatment options?

Lifestyle changes can play an important role, but for short-term indigestion treatment over-the-counter antacids can provide much needed relief. These work by neutralising acid in the stomach, so reducing the irritation that we experience as indigestion.

If indigestion is caused by acid reflux, using an antacid that contains an alginate will help to keep acid in the stomach and away from the oesophagus.

In persistent, chronic cases of indigestion, prescription drugs may be necessary. These include proton pump inhibitors, which restrict stomach acid production, and H2-receptor antagonists, which also work by lowering the acidity in the stomach.

Can it be prevented?

Indigestion prevention depends on the causative factor. It is important to take note of when indigestion occurs in order to identify triggers and assess whether the indigestion is related to diet and lifestyle. In these cases, adjustments may need to be made in order to eliminate these triggers, for example, cutting down on spicy foods or alcohol.

Maintaining a healthy weight, managing stress and changing any medications that contribute to the development of indigestion can also help to keep it at bay, as can eating smaller meals and waiting at least three hours before going to bed after your final meal of the day.

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in June 2015