Indigestion (also known as dyspepsia) describes symptoms of pain and discomfort in your stomach or upper abdomen that can often be triggered by eating or drinking.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

Symptoms of indigestion

Indigestion refers to a group of symptoms often caused by eating or drinking and is not a disease. The most common symptoms are heartburn, a burning sensation in your stomach and pain in your upper abdomen (which is where your stomach is located) — pain can range from mild to severe. Other indigestion symptoms include:

  • Acid reflux — bringing up a bitter-tasting fluid 
  • Bloating or a feeling of tightness in your upper abdomen — this is caused by a build-up of gas
  • Feeling overly-full as soon as you start eating or when you finish — you may be unable to finish your meal due to uncomfortable fullness, and fullness after your meal may last longer than usual
  • Flatulence and burping
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

Most people have bouts of indigestion from time to time, especially pregnant women. However, some people have indigestion more often, sometimes every day. 

Usually, you can relieve symptoms on your own with lifestyle changes and/or over-the-counter medication. However, if you often get indigestion and it’s very painful, it could be a sign you have an underlying medical condition, such as gallbladder disease, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) or ulcers.

Causes of indigestion

Normally when you eat food, stomach acid is produced to help digestion. Indigestion sometimes occurs when too much stomach acid is produced and irritates the lining of your stomach, the top part of your bowel or your gullet (oesophagus). This can cause bloating, soreness and a burning sensation in your upper abdomen. 

Indigestion often occurs after eating too much or too fast. It can also be caused, or made worse, by:

  • A problem with your digestive system eg peptic ulcer disease
  • Certain medicines eg anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Coeliac disease
  • Drinking alcohol or eating fatty or fried foods
  • Smoking
  • Stress and/or tiredness — stress increases your risk of acid reflux

Being overweight can also cause indigestion as it increases your risk of acid reflux. 

Ulcers in your stomach and the top part of your small intestine (duodenum) can cause indigestion too. However, ulcers are becoming less common as they are often caused by the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, which is less prevalent in the UK today. 

Ulcers are more common in people who smoke or take certain anti-inflammatory drugs to treat joint and muscle pain, which can damage the stomach lining. You may also be at greater risk of developing ulcers if you have close family members with ulcers as they can run in families.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Conditions related to indigestion

Your heart sits near your stomach, which is why it can be hard to determine whether upper abdominal pain is caused by your stomach or your heart. Both indigestion and a heart attack can sometimes cause back pain. 

Call 999 if you have any of the following symptoms, as well as indigestion:

  • A rapid or irregular heartbeat (palpitations) 
  • Chest pain — this pain may spread to your arms, shoulder, neck or jaw
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sweating
  • Tightness or heaviness in your chest

Frequent indigestion can be a sign of an underlying condition, including:

Getting a diagnosis for indigestion

You should seek immediate medical attention if you: 

  • Have black, tar-like stools
  • Have blood in your stool
  • Have blood in your vomit — in some cases, this may look like coffee grounds in your vomit as the blood has clotted together

You should see your GP if you: 

  • Are unintentionally losing weight
  • Are vomiting regularly
  • Have difficulty swallowing
  • Have frequent, very painful indigestion symptoms for the first time and are aged over 55 
  • Have indigestion symptoms for more than a few weeks
  • Have indigestion symptoms that are not improving with over-the-counter medications

Your GP will discuss your symptoms with you and may examine your abdomen.

Depending on your symptoms and their severity, your GP may refer you for tests to rule out certain diseases — this will determine what treatment you need. Tests may include:

  • A breath test to check for Helicobacter pylori, a bacterial infection that can cause stomach ulcers
  • A gastroscopy (endoscopy) to look at your digestive system for conditions such as a stomach ulcer or hiatus hernia
  • A stool sample or blood test

If the results are inconclusive, your GP may refer you for further tests or to a gastroenterologist, a consultant specialising in the digestive system.

Treatments for indigestion

Home remedies

  • Apple cider vinegar — if your indigestion is caused by too little stomach acid, this may help as it increases the production of stomach acid
  • Chamomile tea — this can ease indigestion by reducing stomach acid in your gullet and bowel
  • Ginger — this can reduce stomach acid levels 
  • Lemon water — this can help neutralise stomach acid and improve digestion
  • Peppermint tea — this can ease indigestion but should not be taken if your indigestion is caused by acid reflux

Lifestyle

Certain lifestyle changes can provide indigestion relief. Try to:

  • Avoid foods that trigger your indigestion — these might be rich, spicy and/or fried foods; you can try replacing theses trigger foods as below: 
    • Acidic drinks (eg citrus and fruit juices, soft drinks) — replace with plain water or very diluted squash
    • Fresh garlic and onions — replace with dehydrated versions 
    • Fried foods — replace with baked, grilled, poached or roasted foods
    • Spices — replace with ginger and herbs eg basil, oregano and thyme
  • Avoid smoking, caffeine and alcohol
  • Avoid stress or find a way to relieve your stress
  • Eat regular meals and have your evening meal at least three hours before bedtime
  • Lose any excess weight

Medication

You may find that taking over-the-counter indigestion remedies bring relief, such as antacids.

Your GP can also prescribe stronger antacids or:

  • H2 receptor antagonists to reduce your stomach’s acidity level
  • Proton pump inhibitors (PPI) to reduce how much acid your stomach produces

If you’re taking a medication that can cause indigestion, your GP may change your medication or alter the dosage.

Other medications and treatment options are available if your indigestion is found to be due to an underlying cause, such as a stomach ulcer or GORD.

Indigestion and pregnancy

If you are pregnant, you are more likely to have indigestion. This is due to: 

  • Growth of your baby in the later stages of pregnancy — your growing baby will cause your womb to push your stomach upwards and apply pressure to your intestines; this slows digestion and leaves less space for your stomach to hold food, which can make you feel fuller after only eating a small meal
  • Heartburn — your muscles relax during pregnancy, including the muscles between your stomach and gullet, which makes it easier for stomach acid to pass up into your gullet causing heartburn and indigestion symptoms
  • Hormonal changes — the hormone progesterone increases during pregnancy and causes your muscles to relax, including the muscles around your intestines, which slows digestion and consequently can cause indigestion

Treating indigestion when pregnant

You may not be able to take certain medications when pregnant. However, you can make lifestyle changes to ease your indigestion symptoms. This includes: 

  • A food curfew — avoid eating food two to three hours before bedtime
  • Relaxation techniques — medication or quiet time before bedtime can help relax your body 
  • Sleeping positions — elevate your head and shoulders slightly using an extra pillow to help prevent stomach acid passing up into your gullet

Frequently asked questions

What does feel like?

Symptoms vary from person to person but often include pain in your stomach or upper abdomen, a burning sensation in your stomach and bloating.

How do you get indigestion to go away?

A bout of indigestion will usually go away on its own after a while. However, you can reduce your symptoms by staying upright to help prevent acid reflux and trying home remedies such as drinking peppermint or chamomile tea. You can also try over-the-counter antacids. If you have frequent indigestion or your indigestion lasts for more than a few weeks, see your GP.

Can indigestion feel like a heart attack?

Both indigestion and a heart attack can cause pain in your upper abdomen or lower chest, and sometimes in your back. This can make it difficult for you to tell the difference between the two conditions. You should, however, seek immediate medical attention if you have any of the below symptoms:

A rapid or irregular heartbeat
Chest pain, which may spread to your arms, shoulder, neck or jaw
Difficulty breathing
Sweating
Tightness or heaviness in your chest

Can indigestion last for days?

Yes, indigestion can last for several days, with symptoms varying in intensity. If your indigestion goes on for more than a few weeks, see your GP.

Does water help indigestion?

Drinking water instead of acidic drinks (eg citrus or fruit juices) is better for indigestion as acidic drinks can further irritate your gullet and bowel.

What should you eat when you have indigestion?

A good diet for indigestion avoids foods that trigger your symptoms, which are often rich, fatty and/or spicy foods. You should therefore try to eat baked, grilled, poached or roasted foods — you can add flavour using ginger, dehydrated garlic or onions (instead of the fresh equivalents) and herbs, such as basil, thyme and oregano.

Does walking help indigestion?

Walking may improve digestion and therefore help protect against indigestion. However, you may want to wait 10-15 minutes after eating to go for a walk as there is some evidence that walking too soon after eating may cause indigestion.

Does lemon water help with indigestion?

Yes, lemon water can help indigestion by neutralising stomach acid and improving your digestion.

Does milk help indigestion?

Whole milk is not recommended to ease indigestion symptoms as the fats contained in whole milk can trigger more stomach acid production. Instead, try skimmed milk.

How do I get rid of indigestion at night?

Avoid eating any food two to three hours before bedtime and try sleeping with your head and shoulders slightly raised using an extra pillow.

How can you tell the difference between a heart attack and indigestion?

Both conditions can cause lower chest and/or upper abdomen pain and back pain. Indigestion usually starts soon after eating or drinking. If you are having a heart attack you may also sweat and have chest pain that spreads to other areas, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, difficulty breathing and tightness or heaviness in your chest. If you have any of these symptoms, you should seek immediate medical attention.

Why do I get indigestion at night?

Indigestion at night is often caused by heartburn after eating a spicy and/or very large meal, especially if eaten within three hours before bedtime. Smoking, drinking too much alcohol, being overweight and stress also increase your risk of indigestion at night.

An underlying condition called gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) can also cause indigestion, which is worse at night.