More than 60 million Americans will suffer from some form of indigestion (often referred to as heartburn) at least once a month, and some people experience daily heartburn. But exactly what is indigestion, what can we do to avoid it, and when are the symptoms of indigestion signaling something more serious?
What is Indigestion?
Indigestion, also called dyspepsia, actually is viewed by physicians as a collection of symptoms which may include heartburn, nausea, stomach ache, stomach gas, and bloating. The terms indigestion and heartburn are often used interchangeably; and, the conditions may share common characteristics.
However, indigestion is usually felt in the mid to upper abdomen, while heartburn is noticed right under the breastbone or radiating up the neck. Feeling full quickly when eating or feeling bloated after a meal also may signal indigestion.
Eating foods that ”disagree” with you may bring on bouts of indigestion. Some people may experience discomfort from dyspepsia for only a few hours; but for others, the pain may last 3-4 days or even longer.
There are many ways to avoid occasional indigestion. Lifestyle changes usually are the simplest to incorporate. For example, many doctors recommend eating smaller and more frequent meals and chewing foods completely before swallowing.
Avoid indigestion triggers such as alcohol, caffeine, or spicy foods, all of which may irritate the lining of the stomach and esophagus. This creates more heartburn as stomach acid refluxes into the esophagus.
Stress often accompanies, and may trigger indigestion, and stress may cause the symptoms to worsen. Relieving stress through such methods as meditation or other relaxation methods may assist in avoiding indigestion. Getting enough sleep also helps reduce stress levels.
Exercise is a stress-buster, and it has the added benefit of promoting weight management. People who are overweight may suffer from indigestion more frequently because the excess fat presses against the stomach, causing acid to back up in the esophagus.
Avoid eating close to bedtime may allow undigested food and stomach acid to flow backwards into the esophagus when lying down, resulting in symptoms of indigestion with heartburn.
Lifestyle changes may not be enough to prevent the symptoms of indigestion. In these cases, over-the-counter (OTC) antacids may help temporarily reduce the discomfort by neutralizing the stomach acid that can cause the inflammation of the stomach and esophagus, leading to indigestion.
Consult a Doctor
If the pain of indigestion becomes more pronounced, lasts longer than usual, or occurs frequently, you should consult a doctor to find out if underlying problems are causing the indigestion. There are several diseases and disorders which may be causing persistent indigestion, many of which are easily treatable once diagnosed.
For example, peptic ulcers are open lesions on the esophagus, the lining of the stomach, or the upper small intestine; these may be an underlying cause of indigestion. These types of ulcers are often caused by a bacterial infection; a physician may prescribe antibiotics and it usually clears up within two-four weeks.
Frequent use of pain reducers such as aspirin, naproxen, or ibuprofen also may cause formation of ulcers. The ulcer will generally heal if these medications are stopped.
Acid is produced in the stomach to aid digestion, and most of the acid is kept in the stomach area by a valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). However, when the LES opens more frequently than normal, it allows acid to back up into the esophagus, causing discomfort and damage to the lining.
When this occurs it is called Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease or GERD, another common disease associated with indigestion. GERD is treated in the same manner as mild indigestion but depending on the severity of the symptoms, prescription drugs may be ordered.
Treatment may also include surgery to repair the LES if the valve is faulty. Left untreated, GERD may do irreparable harm to the esophagus, and may lead to more serious problems or illnesses.
Consult your physician to determine the cause of persistent indigestion. Early detection and diagnosis is often the key to successful treatment.
Keeping Indigestion in Check
For most people, indigestion is simply an occasional problem which is uncomfortable and sometimes even embarrassing. But by making lifestyle changes, occasionally using OTC medications, and learning when to seek medical help, you can keep indigestion at bay.
Cynthia D. Sprouse, BA
Training & Technical Assistance Services, Western Kentucky University
American College of Gastroenterology, PO Box 342260, Bethesda MD, 20827-2260; 301-263-9000; www.acg.gi.org
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, 8700 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90048; 310-423-3277; www.csmc.edu
International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD), PO Box 170864, Milwaukee WI 53217-8076; 888-964-2001; www.iffgd.org
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), Service of National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), NIH, 2 Information Hwy, Bethesda MD 20892-3570; 800-891-5389; digestive.niddk.nih.gov