What is indigestion?
Indigestion, also known as dyspepsia, is a term used to describe pain or discomfort in the upper part of the gut – this includes the gullet, stomach and the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum). The umbrella term includes a condition we commonly refer to as ‘heartburn’; this is caused by acid from the stomach travelling back to the gullet and on towards your throat. Heartburn is also referred to as acid reflux and affects approximately one in five adults in the UK.
Other symptoms of indigestion include bloating, belching, feeling overly ‘full’ or sick. Symptoms are often related to eating and may come in bouts rather than being present all of the time.
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What causes indigestion?
There are a number of potential causes, these may include:
- Structural issues such as a stomach ulcer or inflammation of the stomach or duodenum
- A weakened sphincter muscle that separates the stomach contents from the gullet
- A hiatus hernia
- Infection by a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori
- Overeating or eating too quickly
- Fatty, greasy or spicy foods
- Excess caffeine, alcohol or chocolate
- Carbonated drinks
- Stress and anxiety
- Certain medications, such as anti-inflammatories
- As with many conditions, the likelihood of experiencing indigestion may also increase with age.
You can find more about indigestion on the NHS website.
A nutritionist’s guide to avoiding indigestion
You may find certain triggers initiate your symptoms. Common trigger foods include spices, coffee, alcohol, chocolate, peppermint, fizzy soft drinks and acidic foods, like tomatoes. Red meat, full-fat dairy and fried foods may also be culprits, as they slow down digestion.
Keeping a food and symptom diary is the first step towards identifying your trigger foods, and you can then start to implement the following steps:
- Cut out or at least minimise your trigger foods
- Limit your consumption of tea, coffee, cola and alcohol
- Take time over your food and aim to eat in a relaxed way, as often as is possible
- Have smaller, more frequent meals and snacks
- Avoid bending or lying down after eating, and ideally time your evening meal at least 3-4 hours before you go to bed
- Reduce red and processed meats, keep rich, spicy or fatty foods to a minimum and opt for lean poultry or fish instead
- Choose dishes that are steamed, grilled or poached, rather than fried
- If you are overweight, seek help to address this
- If you smoke, stop
- If you regularly take ibuprofen or aspirin, these can make your symptoms worse so speak to a pharmacist for advice on alternatives
- Elevate the head of your bed to help prevent heartburn disturbing your sleep
When to see your GP
Most of us experience indigestion at some stage – a few lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications should be all that’s needed to manage the condition. However, if your indigestion is recurrent or worsening – don’t ignore your symptoms. Refer to your GP if you experience any of the following:
- Heartburn on most days for three weeks or more
- You’ve been taking antacids for four weeks or more
- You have symptoms such as weight loss, nausea or difficulty swallowing in conjunction with heartburn
Interested in more ways to manage your indigestion? Now read:
Do you suffer with heartburn or other forms of indigestion? Have you recently made dietary changes to ease your symptoms? Share your experiences below.
This article was reviewed on 23 October 2023 by Kerry Torrens, Registered Nutritionist.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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