Indigestion and heartburn

What causes it, what are the symptoms and what can you do about it?

Indigestion (or dyspepsia) is that uncomfortable or painful feeling you can get in the upper abdomen after eating. Sometimes there may be a burning feeling in the chest; this is known as heartburn.

In most cases, indigestion is simply caused by eating too much (especially rich or spicy food), or eating too fast.

Heartburn generally occurs when the valve between the oesophagus and stomach isn't working properly. Eating and drinking too much, or too quickly, can over-fill the stomach causing this valve to open and the acid to rise. Pressure on the stomach, as occurs in pregnancy or in overweight people for example, can intensify the problem.

Indigestion includes a collection of symptoms such as nausea, bloating, belching, abdominal discomfort and perhaps most commonly, heartburn. If indigestion is very frequent, painful, or you have never experienced it before,
then it would be wise to consult your doctor.

Simple changes to diet and lifestyle can help in most cases, such as:

  • Avoid eating within three hours of bed time, and if you suffer from heartburn try sleeping propped up with two or three pillows. Eat slowly, chew foods properly and don't over-indulge; smaller more frequent meals can be a good idea.
  • Avoid foods and drinks that may irritate you, such as rich or fatty foods, alcohol, coffee, peppermint, chocolate and perhaps onions and garlic.
  • Long-term lifestyle changes can also help, such as having regular meals and a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, keeping active, avoiding excess alcohol and stopping smoking.
First published: Sep 2006

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