Dyspepsia (Indigestion): How to Treat It
What is dyspepsia (indigestion)?
Dyspepsia is discomfort or pain in the upper abdomen, usually just after you eat. It’s sometimes referred to as indigestion.
There’s no apparent physical cause for indigestion. It's not caused by an ulcer, there aren’t high levels of stomach acid. A doctor can diagnose it only after making sure the pain isn’t being caused by something else, such as too much stomach acid or a mass.
Indigestion is one of the most common gastrointestinal (digestive tract) problems in the U.S. It is typically treated with over-the-counter medications.
What are symptoms of indigestion?
The week before you see your doctor, keep a diary of your food intake, medication timing, stress levels, and symptoms. Bring it to your appointment. —Dr. Shria Kumar
The main symptom of indigestion is pain in the upper abdomen or other discomfort, such as feeling too full after eating. You also might feel nauseous or bloated (like your stomach is full of gas).
Most people say symptoms are worse after eating.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can have some overlap with dyspeptic symptoms. Unlike indigestion, the main symptoms of GERD are reflux related, such as heartburn and chest pain after eating or while lying down.
What causes indigestion?
Dyspepsia doesn’t have anything to do with acids or how your stomach functions. In fact, everything works well, but patients still have symptoms.
There are many different reasons why this happens in some people, and they can each play a small part (which also tells us why people experience it differently).
In general, indigestion is thought to be due to a mix of genetics, stress, and environmental factors.
What makes you more likely to have dyspepsia?
Many medications that look to mediate the brain-gut axis are helpful in dyspepsia. Your doctor may recommend these. —Dr. Kumar
Some of the factors that make you more likely to be diagnosed with indigestion.
- Women are more likely than men to have indigestion.
- Having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, even just now and then.
- Taking antibiotics.
- A recent stomach bug.
- There can also be a particularly strong mind-body connection, which means that emotional issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression can make you more likely to have indigestion.
If you have indigestion symptoms, definitely talk to your doctor. There isn’t a test that proves you have indigestion, so the diagnosis is mostly based on what you tell your doctor. Typically if you have consistent symptoms for weeks or months, you’ll be diagnosed with indigestion.
Since symptoms may be vague and overlap with other medical conditions, your doctor will first need to make sure it’s not something more serious. They will ask detailed questions about how you feel and may order blood tests or imaging tests to make sure there isn’t something else causing your stomach pain.
You might be referred to a gastroenterologist (a doctor who specializes in the digestive system), who can do additional tests. If these tests don’t show anything, and your symptoms are keeping you from finishing a meal at least 3 days per week, you may have indigestion.
However, call your doctor right away if you are over 55 and:
- Stomach pain comes on suddenly and abruptly
- You have bloody or black, tarry stool
- You can’t swallow or swallowing hurts
- You experience frequent vomiting
- You have unexplained weight loss
- There is a family history of cancer
Can children get dyspepsia?
Yes, and symptoms in children are often stress-related, but the symptoms are similar. Talk with your child’s pediatrician to make sure it isn’t something else.
How do you cure dyspepsia?
Symptom control and identification of triggers are the mainstays of dyspepsia treatment—and really improve quality of life. —Dr. Kumar
Treatment depends on specific symptoms.
- For bloating, you can take anti-bloating medications.
- For gas, you can take anti-gas medications.
- For pain you can take antacids.
- Combining medication with stress management techniques such as yoga can also help.
If these treatments don’t help, doctors sometimes try prescribing antidepressants. Even if the patient is not diagnosed with depression, these medications have been shown to improve stomach symptoms in some patients with indigestion.
Your doctor may also have you make changes to your day-to-day diet to see if particular foods or eating patterns trigger symptoms. If any do, avoiding them would be important.
Possible triggers include:
- Red meat
- Carbonated drinks, citrus fruits or juices
- Spicy or fatty foods
It’s difficult to “prevent” indigestion but an overall healthy lifestyle is helpful.
- Eat nutritious meals.
- Exercise regularly.
- Develop and keep up good mental health routines, such as meditation.
- Learn to manage stress.
- Rely on family and friends for social support.
Dr. Kumar is a gastroenterologist, who completed her fellowship at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She received her undergraduate degrees in Religious Studies and Chemistry from New York University (2010) and graduated from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (2014), where she was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society. She is completing her therapeutic endoscopy fellowship at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. She joined Buoy Health in 2020. She believes in the importance of patients being educated about their health, and joined Buoy in order to be part of a platform that helps disseminate clear and verified advice directly to patients.