Indigestion: Symptoms, Causes, Prevention and Treatment

Many people confuse indigestion for acid reflux and vice-versa. In fact, a lot of people don’t know if there are differences between the two. However, the two terms do not mean the same thing.

What Is Indigestion?

Indigestion, also called dyspepsia is a common condition that affects up to 25 percent of the population in some countries.1)

It is not a disease on its own, but more of a condition that may be caused by what you ingest. It may also signify an underlying disease within the digestive system. Dyspepsia may be occasional or chronic. 

Symptoms

Indigestion occurs within the stomach which is located in the upper part of the abdomen. For this reason, its symptoms are generally felt within this region. This is different from acid reflux whose symptoms are felt in the lower part of the chest near the lower edge of the ribcage. In other words, the location within the body where the symptoms arise can be an indicator of whether you are suffering from indigestion or acid reflux. 

One of the most common symptoms of indigestion is a dull feeling of fullness within the upper part of the abdomen. The feeling can arise at any time but in most cases, it begins around meal time.

Feeling full when you have only eaten a small part of a meal could be a sign that you have dyspepsia. The feeling of fullness may also set in after you have had your meal. 

Another symptom of dyspepsia is feeling bloated within the upper part of the abdomen. This may be accompanied by a burning sensation in the same area of the abdomen. Less common symptoms include nausea, vomiting and belching. 

What Causes Indigestion?

To understand this, let us briefly look at how digestion happens.

Digestion begins in the mouth where larger food particles are broken into smaller particles which are mixed with saliva to form a sort of paste that is easier to swallow and to process once it gets into the stomach.

Once the food gets into the stomach, it stimulates production of gastric acid and the enzymes responsible for breaking it down into its various components such as nutrients and waste.

However, some factors can interfere with this process which can lead to indigestion. Most cases of poor digestion have a lifestyle or diet component. This includes being anxious, eating too quickly, overeating or eating spicy or fatty foods. Dyspepsia may also be caused or triggered by consuming high amounts of alcohol, caffeine, carbonated beverages or chocolate. Smoking, taking certain medications notably some antibiotics and pain killers as well as iron supplements can also aggravate poor digestion.

Dyspepsia may also arise as a consequence of structural or functional conditions within the digestive system. These conditions include constipation, blockage in the intestines, and poor blood supply to the intestines. Inflammation of the stomach lining, peptic ulcers and diseases like celiac disease, pancreatitis and stomach cancer can also lead to indigestion.2)

Can Indigestion and Acid Reflux Occur at the Same Time?

It is worth to note that although indigestion is different from acid reflux, the two can occur together. In this case, it can be confusing and is probably the reason why many people use the two terms interchangeably.

Still, it is important that you differentiate between the two conditions because they are not necessarily managed in the same way.

Is It Possible to Prevent Indigestion?

In some cases, indigestion can be prevented. This is especially true if the problem is caused by some types of food or drinks, or some lifestyles. In such cases, making changes so that you avoid the culprit items or lifestyles can help you prevent or reduce the occurrence of dyspepsia.

For this to happen, you need to understand your body and how it reacts to various foods, drinks and lifestyles. You can do this by keeping a record of the items of food and other indulgences that you consume and their effects. Doing this over a period of time can help to isolate the items that cause, or trigger indigestion.

In this respect, it is best to give up indulgences and lifestyles that may be causing this discomfort. For instance, if you are a smoker and suffer from indigestion, you should consider quitting. Similarly, if you drink alcohol, you can quit or reduce the amount that you take and see if this helps to stop or lessen the problem of poor digestion.

Other ways to prevent or reduce episodes of dyspepsia include avoiding stressful conditions, ensuring that you get enough sleep, having your last meal of the day as early in the evening as possible, eating slowly and chewing your food adequately before swallowing.

Treatment

The best way to treat or manage any condition is to first identify its cause. In the case of dyspepsia there are many different causes. For this reason, different treatment methods are required. 

The first method of managing the problem is to prevent it from occurring. This is what you achieve by identifying the cause or trigger of the problem. Once this is known, you may be able to prevent the problem by avoiding the causative agent. 

If, however, indigestion occurs due to a condition within the digestive system, it would be necessary to undergo laboratory testing or imaging. 

Problems such as inflammation of the stomach lining, ulcers and pancreatitis will usually require long-term prescription medication.

Many people with dyspepsia usually self-medicate with antacids and anti-inflammatory medications. But, while these drugs may give some relief, they are not always the proper medication for the problem. This is because they are unlikely to treat the cause of the problem.

Some medications may in fact lead to more problems. For instance, taking antacids habitually can reduce the amount of gastric acid such that digestion is impaired even further. This can lead to reduced absorption of nutrients and, therefore, their deficiency in the body.

When To See a Doctor

While most cases of dyspepsia are mild and go away with or without treatment, if left untreated, serious or chronic indigestion can lead to other health complications. As stated elsewhere in this discussion, dyspepsia is not really a disease but a sign of an underlying condition. As such, when it keeps recurring, it is important to seek for testing and diagnosis so that you may get proper treatment.

Seek medical attention if you suffer from serious or chronic indigestion which is accompanied by difficulty in swallowing, vomiting blood, fatigue, bloody or tarry stools, difficulty in breathing, chest pain and loss of weight.3)

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