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What causes indigestion? 21 possible conditions

What Is Indigestion?

Indigestion (also known as dyspepsia) happens to almost everyone from time to time. Eating habits or a chronic digestive problem can trigger indigestion.

Indigestion can cause stomach pain or bloating. You may also have heartburn, nausea, and vomiting. Other common symptoms of indigestion include: 

  • feeling full during a meal and not being able to finish eating
  • feeling extremely full after eating a normal-sized meal
  • a burning sensation in the stomach or esophagus
  • a gnawing sensation in the stomach
  • excessive gas or belching

It’s important that you don’t ignore severe symptoms of indigestion. See your doctor right away if you experience any of the following:

  • severe vomiting
  • vomit that is bloody or that looks like coffee grounds
  • unexplained weight loss
  • black stools
  • trouble swallowing

Causes of Indigestion

In some cases, indigestion results from overeating or eating too fast. Eating spicy, greasy, and fatty foods also increases the risk of indigestion. Lying down too soon after meals can make it harder to digest food, increasing your risk for abdominal discomfort.

Other common causes of poor digestion include:

  • smoking
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • side effects of medicines (especially nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen)

Eating habits and lifestyle choices aren’t the only possible causes of indigestion. Sometimes, symptoms of indigestion indicate a serious problem in the upper digestive tract. Common digestive diseases that can cause indigestion include:

  • acid reflux disease (also called GERD)
  • gastric cancer
  • pancreatic or bile duct abnormalities
  • peptic ulcers (sores in the lining of the stomach and esophagus caused by the H. pylori bacteria)

Sometimes, there’s no known cause of indigestion. This is called functional dyspepsia. Functional dyspepsia may be caused by abnormal muscle motility (squeezing action) in the area where the stomach muscles digest and move food into the small intestine.

Diagnosing Indigestion

Your doctor will likely start by asking questions about your medical history and eating habits. You’ll undergo a physical examination, and your doctor may order X-ray images of your abdomen to see if there are any abnormalities in your digestive tract. Your doctor may also collect samples of your blood, breath, and stool to check for a type of bacteria that causes peptic ulcers.

An endoscopic examination of the upper digestive tract can also be used to check for abnormalities. With an endoscopy, your doctor gently passes a small tube with a camera and biopsy tool through your esophagus and into your stomach. This allows your doctor to check the lining of the digestive tract for diseases, and collect tissue samples to be tested for infection or cancer. You’ll be mildly sedated for this procedure. An upper gastrointestinal (GI) endoscopy can diagnose GERD, ulcers, infection, and cancer.

Treatment Options for Indigestion


Several medications can treat indigestion, although you may have side effects. Over-the-counter antacids like Maalox and Mylanta help neutralize stomach acid, but may cause diarrhea or constipation.

H2 receptor antagonists (H2RAs), such as Zantac and Pepcid, work to reduce stomach acid. Side effects of these medications include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • rash or itching
  • constipation
  • headache
  • bleeding or bruising

Prokinetics, such as the prescription medications Reglan and Motilium, improve the muscle action (motility) of the digestive tract. These medications may cause depression, anxiety, involuntary movements or spasms, and fatigue.

Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) like Prilosec also reduce stomach acid, but are typically stronger than H2RAs. Side effects of these medications include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • cough
  • headache
  • backache
  • dizziness
  • abdominal pain

Both PPIs and H2 drugs are typically used to treat peptic ulcers. If the bacteria H. pylori are the cause of ulcers, these drugs are used in combination with antibiotics, such as clarithromycin and amoxicillin.

Lifestyle Changes and Home Care

Medication isn’t the only treatment option for indigestion. You may be able to improve digestion and relieve uncomfortable symptoms with simple lifestyle adjustments. For example:

  • Eat smaller meals throughout the day.
  • Avoid spicy, fatty foods that can trigger heartburn.
  • Eat more slowly and don’t eat before lying down.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Lose excess body weight.
  • Reduce the amount of coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol you consume.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Stop taking medicines that irritate the stomach lining, such as NSAIDs and aspirin.
  • Reduce stress through yoga or relaxation therapy.


Although poor digestion is a common problem, you shouldn’t ignore indigestion that’s chronic, severe, or doesn’t respond to over-the-counter medication. If it’s left untreated, the symptoms of indigestion may interfere with the quality of your life. 

If you’re unable to manage indigestion at home, speak with your doctor to determine the underlying cause of poor digestion.

Article Sources:

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.



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Stomach Ulcer

Stomach ulcers are painful sores in the stomach lining or small intestine. They occur when the mucus that protects the stomach from digestive juices is reduced.

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Peptic Ulcer

Peptic ulcers are painful sores in the lining of the stomach, esophagus, or small intestine. Peptic ulcers are a fairly common health problem.

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Gall Bladder Inflammation

Gallbladder disease is a term for various conditions that affect the organ. The majority of these diseases are caused by irritation to the gallbladder wall.

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Cirrhosis is the severe scarring and poor function of the liver caused by long-term exposure to toxins such as alcohol or viral infections.

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Acute Pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis is an inflammation in the pancreas, which causes pain and swelling in the upper left side of the abdomen, nausea, and burping.

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Generalized Anxiety Disorder

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Ovarian Cysts

Most women will develop at least one cyst on their ovaries during their lives. In most cases, these cysts are painless and cause no symptoms.

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Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)

Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a chronic condition that affects the chambers of your heart. CHF refers to fluid buildup around your heart.

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Celiac Disease (Gluten Intolerance)

Celiac disease is a digestive disorder caused by an immune reaction to gluten. Symptoms vary but can include arthritis, fatigue, and abdominal symptoms.

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Stomach Cancer (Gastric Adenocarcinoma)

Stomach cancer occurs when cancerous cells form in the stomach lining. Because it's difficult to detect, it's often not diagnosed until it's more advanced.

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Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is cancer of the pancreas, an organ that secretes an enzyme that breaks down fats, carbs, and proteins. Pancreatic cancer can obstruct the outflow of bile from the liver and causes yellow skin.

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Ovarian Cancer

The ovaries are small, almond-shaped organs located on either side of the uterus that produce eggs. As the disease progresses, symptoms include back pain and indigestion.

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Chronic Cholecystitis

Cholecystitis or acute cholecystitis is the inflammation of your gallbladder. If this condition persists for a prolonged period of time or if you have repeated attacks, it is called chronic cholecystitis.

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H. Pylori Infection

H. pylori are a type of bacteria that may not cause problems. However, sometimes it can cause pain, bloating, and burping, and may lead to ulcers or stomach cancer.

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Chronic Pancreatitis

Chronic, or long-term, pancreatitis is an inflammation of your pancreas that impairs your body's ability to digest food and regulate blood sugar.

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Chronic Gastritis

Chronic gastritis involves swelling or inflammation of the stomach lining. If you have this condition, you might feel full after eating just a few bites. Chronic gastritis might be painless or cause you dull, persisten...

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Acute Cholecystitis - A Fancy Term for an Inflamed Gallbladder

Acute cholecystitis is also known as inflammation of the gallbladder. The gallbladder is an organ that sits below the liver and helps your body digest fats.

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.