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Avoiding Digestion Problems

by Mary Gallagher, RN, MSN, CCRN

Oct 1, 2017
Health

AT ONE TIME OR ANOTHER, nearly everyone experiences indigestion (dyspepsia), a feeling of discomfort or burning in your upper abdomen. You may belch and feel bloated. You may also feel nauseated or even vomit. Although indigestion is common, each person experiences it in a slightly different way, with symptoms occurring only occasionally or as often as daily. It is bad enough to have indigestion at home; you certainly want to avoid it while traveling, though sticking to your normally healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins is not always a priority or even a possibility.

You may get indigestion from eating too much or too fast, eating high-fat or spicy foods, or eating when you are stressed or anxious. Other contributors include smoking; drinking too many alcoholic, caffeinated or carbonated beverages; eating chocolate; taking certain medicines; and being tired. Sometimes the culprit is a function of the digestive tract itself, such as an ulcer or gastroesophageal reflux disease. Other causes include gastritis, peptic ulcers, celiac disease, gallstones, constipation, pancreas inflammation (pancreatitis), stomach cancer, intestinal blockage and reduced blood flow in the intestine (intestinal ischemia). Indigestion with no obvious cause is known as functional or non-ulcer dyspepsia.

Indigestion occurs during or right after eating. It may feel like heat, burning or pain in the area between the navel and the lower part of the breastbone, an unpleasant fullness that comes on soon after a meal begins or when the meal is over. You may experience bloating in the upper abdomen and an uncomfortable sensation of tightness. Sometimes people with indigestion also experience heartburn, but heartburn and indigestion are two separate conditions. Heartburn is a pain or burning feeling in the center of your chest that may radiate into your neck or back during or after eating.

Although indigestion doesn’t usually have serious complications, it can affect your quality of life by making you feel uncomfortable and causing you to eat less. You might miss work or school because of your symptoms.

Indigestion can be a sign of a more serious problem, so you should see your health care provider if it lasts for more than two weeks or if you have severe pain or other symptoms. Your provider will take a history and perform a thorough assessment, which may be sufficient if your indigestion is mild and you’re not experiencing certain symptoms such as weight loss and repeated vomiting. But if your indigestion began suddenly and you are experiencing severe symptoms or are older than age 55, your doctor may recommend X-rays, a CT scan, lab tests, a stool sample or an upper endoscopy to diagnose the cause. You may need medicines to treat the symptoms.

Lifestyle changes can help ease indigestion. Avoid foods that trigger indigestion; eat five or six small meals a day instead of three large meals; reduce or eliminate the use of alcohol and caffeine; and avoid certain pain relievers such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB and others) and naproxen sodium (Aleve). Find alternatives for medications that trigger indigestion, and try controlling stress and anxiety If your indigestion persists, medications may help. Over-the-counter antacids are generally the first choice. Another option is a proton pump inhibitor, which reduces stomach acid. PPIs may be recommended if you experience heartburn along with indigestion. H-2-receptor antagonists can also reduce stomach acid. Prokinetics may be helpful if your stomach empties slowly. Antibiotics may be considered if H. pylori bacteria are causing your indigestion. Antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications may ease the discomfort from indigestion by decreasing your sensation of pain.

Alternative and complementary treatments may help ease indigestion although they have not been well-studied. These treatments include herbal therapies such as peppermint and caraway, behavior modification, relaxation techniques, mindfulness meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy and hypnotherapy. Acupuncture may work by blocking the nerve pathways that carry sensations of pain to the brain.

STW 5 (Iberogast) is a liquid supplement that contains extracts of herbs including bitter candytuft, peppermint leaves, caraway and licorice root. STW 5 may work by reducing the production of gastric acid. Always check with your doctor before taking any supplements to be sure you’re taking a safe dose and that the supplement will not adversely interact with other medications you take.

Most of the time indigestion is not a sign of a serious health problem unless it occurs with other symptoms. Rarely, the discomfort of a heart attack is mistaken for indigestion. Get medical help right away if your symptoms include jaw pain, chest pain, back pain, heavy sweating, anxiety or a feeling of impending doom. These are possible heart attack symptoms.

Digestive problems can put a damper on your trip, but watching what you eat can help keep your digestive system on track. Significant changes in your eating habits, not drinking enough fluids and even the stress of travel can result in indigestion. Do not eat foods without considering what’s in them or how they were cooked. Avoid eating heavy meals late at night, and do not lie down after consuming a heavy meal; your system requires two hours to properly digest a meal. Allow enough time for meals, chew food carefully and completely, avoid arguments during meals and avoid excitement or exercise right after eating. Relax and get rest if stress is causing your indigestion.

The content of this article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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