What Is Indigestion?

Abdominal Discomfort Brought on By Eating

In This Article

Indigestion is a feeling of discomfort and pain in the upper abdomen and chest, often accompanied by feeling too full, bloating, belching, and nausea that occurs after eating. Certain foods can trigger indigestion, such as fried and fatty foods and chocolate. Other names for indigestion are dyspepsia and upset stomach.

What Is Indigestion?

Indigestion is a painful or burning sensation in the upper abdomen or chest. It happens after you eat. Certain foods can trigger indigestion including fatty or fried foods and chocolate.

Indigestion vs. Heartburn and GERD

It is common for people to confuse indigestion with heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), but these are separate conditions. Some people who experience heartburn describe it as indigestion. Although both conditions have similar triggers, and in many instances may even be treated similarly, indigestion isn't the same thing as heartburn. Indigestion is an overall condition, whereas heartburn may be a symptom of indigestion, GERD, or other underlying diagnosis.

Man taking indigestion tablet
Image Source / Getty Images

Occasionally, heartburn is one of the symptoms of indigestion. Heartburn is felt when stomach acid comes up through the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) that links your esophagus to your stomach. This causes a burning sensation in the chest or throat. When you feel the taste in the back of your mouth it may be called acid indigestion. Gastroesophageal reflux (GER) is when your stomach contents come back up into the esophagus; GERD is classified as a sustained or chronic state of GER.

Symptoms

You may experience these symptoms with indigestion:

  • Heartburn: A burning pain that usually starts in the chest, behind the breastbone
  • Pain in the upper abdomen or chest that may or may not be related to overeating or consuming a trigger food or beverage
  • A feeling of discomfort or that you are full too soon when eating and fullness lasting longer than it should after eating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Burping
  • Flatulence
  • Bloating

When to See a Doctor

Indigestion can be a sign of a more serious condition, such as an ulcer or occasionally cancer. If you experience the following symptoms in addition to indigestion, see your doctor.

  • Heartburn more than twice a week
  • Unplanned weight loss
  • Severe pain
  • Difficulty or pain when swallowing
  • Black, tarry stools
  • Family history of gastric cancer

You also should see your doctor if you're over 45 and have rarely had indigestion in the past.

When to Seek Immediate Care

If you experience any of these symptoms at the same time as indigestion, get medical help right away:

  • Vomiting with specks of blood or with blood that looks like coffee grounds
  • Vomiting fresh blood
  • Shortness of breath, sweating, chest pain

Causes

Indigestion is a common problem that can be triggered by several things, including what and how you eat and drink. It can also be caused by more concerning health problems. Common causes include:

  • Overeating
  • Eating too fast
  • Significant caffeine intake
  • Eating fatty or spicy foods
  • Significant alcohol consumption
  • Smoking
  • Pregnancy
  • Cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder)
  • Chronic or acute gastritis (inflammation of the stomach)
  • Chronic or acute pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • Duodenal ulcer
  • Gastric ulcer
  • Antibiotics
  • Aspirin
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Stress
  • Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a bacterium in the mucous layer of the stomach that can cause irritation (gastritis) and ulcers. If H. pylori is diagnosed, it can usually be treated with antibiotics.

Less commonly, a hiatal hernia may cause indigestion. This occurs when part of the stomach slides upward through the diaphragm and into the chest cavity. Besides indigestion, a hiatal hernia can cause pain and heartburn.

Diagnoses

To diagnose indigestion, your doctor will start with a medical history and physical exam, and also go over your lifestyle and which medications you take. From there they may recommend:

  • Endoscopy: This procedure uses a thin, flexible scope, which has a small camera and light attached to evaluate the inside of the body. It is rarely used to assess indigestion unless symptoms are severe.
  • Imaging tests such as X-ray, computerized tomography, or ultrasound
  • H. pylori testing, which may include blood, stool, or breath testing

Treatment

You can make changes to how you live your life that will help alleviate heartburn. There are also over-the-counter and prescription drugs that can help.

Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle modifications can often relieve indigestion symptoms.

  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals and avoid late-night snacks. Large meals expand your stomach and increase upward pressure against the esophageal sphincter.
  • Limit your intake of foods and beverages that trigger your symptoms. Eat foods that rarely cause heartburn and avoid those foods known to cause or exacerbate heartburn.
  • Exercise regularly, but not immediately after eating. Wait an hour or two to allow food to digest.
  • Stay upright for about two hours after you eat. Gravity helps prevent stomach juices from backing up into the esophagus and also assists the flow of food and digestive juices from the stomach to the intestines.
  • Elevate your head a few inches during sleep. Lying down flat presses the stomach's contents against the lower esophageal sphincter. When your head is higher than your stomach, gravity helps reduce this pressure. To elevate your head, place bricks, blocks, or anything that's sturdy securely under the legs at the head of your bed. You can also use an extra pillow, or a wedge-shaped pillow, to prop up your head.
  • Don't smoke. Nicotine relaxes the esophageal sphincter. Smoking also stimulates the production of stomach acid. 
  • Cut back on alcohol or don't dring at all. If you still want to drink alcoholic beverages, dilute alcoholic beverages with water or club soda, limit the amount you drink at one time, choose white wine rather than red, and avoid mixers you know may trigger your symptoms.
  • Relax. Follow relaxation tips to alleviate stress, which can make stress-related indigestion less likely.
  • Loosen your belt and other clothing around your waist. Tight-fitting clothing will squeeze the stomach, forcing food up against the lower esophageal sphincter, and causing food to reflux into the esophagus. This goes for slenderizing undergarments as well as belts.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Excess fat on your abdomen pushes on your stomach.

Medications

These drugs may help with indigestion.

  • OTC heartburn medications: There are various over-the-counter treatment options available for acid reflux. For some individuals, they've found relief from their indigestion symptoms by using these drugs. These include antacids, for example Tums, Maalox, and Milk of Magnesia.
  • Histamine receptor antagonists: An important group of medicines for treating indigestion and heartburn known as H2-receptor antagonists or H2 blockers. These include Tagamet HB (cimetidine) and Pepcid AC (famotidine).
  • Proton pump inhibitors: Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are a group of medications that prevent the release of acid in the stomach and intestines. These include Nexium, Prevacid, and Prilosec. They are also available over-the-counter.
  • Prokinetics: These drugs help your stomach empty faster. They include Urecholine (bethanechol) and Reglan (metoclopramide).
  • Antibiotics: If your doctor detects an H. pylori infection, they will likely prescribe a combination of antibiotics, PPIs, and bismuth.
  • Tricyclic antidepressants: Drugs such as nortriptyline and amitriptyline may help relax the lower esophageal sphincter and improve symptoms of indigestion.

A Word From Verywell

Indigestion is a common—and unpleasant condition—but it isn't one you need to worry about, given the myriad options you have for preventing and treating it. If you have frequent indigestion, do let your doctor know, however, especially if you can't pinpoint a common reason (such as drinking too much coffee or overeating occasionally). Chances are your digestive system is just fine, but it never hurts to check.

Heartburn Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman
Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Definition & facts for GER & GERD. Nov 2014.

  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Indigestion (dyspepsia). Updated November 2016.

  3. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Acid reflux (GER & GERD) in adults. Updated November 2015.

  4. Indigestion symptoms and treatments. Nhsinform.scot. https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/stomach-liver-and-gastrointestinal-tract/indigestion.