This Is What Your Indigestion Is Trying to Tell You

It's not always just something you ate. There could be a bigger issue to address.

We all know that bloated, uncomfortable, nauseated feeling after eating something that doesn't quite seem to agree with us. However, just because indigestion is a common health issue doesn't mean it's always benign. In fact, those unpleasant symptoms you've been attributing to heavy meals could be hinting at a much more serious condition, like an ulcer or autoimmune disease. If you're struggling with indigestion on a regular basis, read on to discover what could be causing that discomfort. And for more signals coming from your midsection that you should look out for, check out This Is Everything Your Stomach Is Trying to Tell You About Your Health.

You are lactose intolerant.

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People with lactose intolerance are unable to process the sugar found in milk products due to a deficiency in lactase, an enzyme produced by your small intestine. The Mayo Clinic explains that symptoms typically show up within 30 minutes to two hours after eating a milk-based product, and can present as nearly identical to more standard indigestion: nausea, abdominal cramping or pain, bloating, and gas. And for more red flags your body may be raising, check out 13 Warning Signs Your Teeth Are Trying to Send You.

You have IBS.

young bearded white man looking seriously in the bathroom mirror

While irritable bowel syndrome and indigestion are recognized as distinct conditions, research increasingly points to an overlap of the two in many patients. In a 2003 study presented at the 68th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology, researchers found that nearly three quarters of people who suffer from IBS also have indigestion. "Physicians need to realize that many patients seeking care for gastrointestinal symptoms are likely to have more than one clinical disorder," said lead researcher Ashok K. Tuteja, MD, from the Department of Gastroenterology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

You have a stomach infection.

Man with stomach ache

While the cause of your indigestion can, in some cases, be fixed with something as simple as a dietary swap, the underlying cause sometimes requires more serious attention. A stomach infection—in particular one caused by H. pylori bacteria—needs to be medically treated to stop further complications. As explained by a 2015 study in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, treating the H. pylori bacteria in an expeditious manner can reduce a patient's risk of developing either an ulcer or stomach cancer. And more things you should be aware regarding your well-being, check out The 20 Worst Habits That Are Destroying Your Heart.

You have pancreatitis.

Woman experiencing stomach discomfort while working on computer

If you suffer from symptoms of chronic indigestion, like abdominal pain that gets worse after eating, abnormal bowel habits, nausea, and vomiting, it may all be a small part of a bigger picture, according to Mir Ali, MD, a general and bariatric surgeon at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California. "Indigestion is a frequent symptom of [pancreatitis] and can often be attributed to alcohol abuse," he explains.

Pancreatitis can also be the result of gallstones, a side effect of medication, autoimmune disorders, or certain infections. So be sure to speak with your doctor to get to the bottom of things. And for more on this part of your body, check out 13 Warning Signs Your Pancreas Is Trying to Tell You Something's Wrong.

You have a connective tissue disease.

Nurse explaining good news to female patient

That pain in your stomach may be the result of a more serious—and surprising—systemic issue. According to a 2011 study in Maedica: a Journal of Clinical Medicine, having indigestion may indicate connective tissue diseases, such as progressive systemic sclerosis. That's because between 80 and 90 percent of patients diagnosed with this illness experience fibrosis in the esophagus, which stops the esophageal sphincter from closing and can lead to acid reflux.

You have Sjorgen's syndrome.

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Sjorgen's syndrome is an autoimmune disease most frequently identified by dryness in a patient's eyes and mouth. But according to that same 2011 Maedica study, indigestion is another common symptom of the illness. In addition to its glandular effects, Sjorgen's can cause inflammation, atrophy, and poor motor coordination in the esophagus.

You have fatty liver disease.

Cropped of girl holding her side, suffering from acute liver pain, grey background

That pain in your stomach could be coming from an entirely different organ. According to a 2015 study in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, 67 percent of study participants identified as having indigestion were also found to have evidence of fatty liver after an ultrasound. Most of these patients noted having chronic or recurrent abdominal pain when questioned about their symptoms. And for more things to know about this important organ, check out 20 Warning Signs Your Liver Sends You.

You have appendicitis.

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According to Kristine Arthur, MD, an internist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center, those symptoms of indigestion might actually point to something far more urgent: appendicitis. She explains, "If you are experiencing a sharp pain in the lower right abdomen that comes on rather suddenly over several hours or a day and it is persistent, it may be appendicitis. You should be seen by a doctor that day because it often requires surgery and, if left untreated, a ruptured appendix can be deadly."

You have gallstones.

Woman holding her stomach in pain sitting on edge of bed

According to Rudolph Bedford, MD, a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, your symptoms of indigestion may actually indicate gallstones. "However, only chronic gallbladder disease may cause digestive problems, such as acid reflux and gas," he says.

Gallstones are often distinguished from indigestion if the pain is restricted to the upper right portion of your abdomen, if you have rapidly intensifying pain in the center of your abdomen, or if you have back pain between your shoulder blades. And for more helpful health information delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

You're overly stressed.

Stressed woman rubbing her temples

It's tempting to brush it off as "all in your head" if you find yourself getting a stomach ache during stressful moments. But as Mayra Mendez, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center explains, "Stress reactions involve complex transactions between brain chemistry and the nervous system. Such transactions result in physiological, psychological, and behavioral responses."

A 2015 study on the effects of emotional stress on digestive diseases published in the Journal of Gastroenterological Motility confirms that the effects of stress on the gastrointestinal tract are very much real. In particular, stress was linked to indigestion, IBS, and reflux esophagitis.

You should switch medications.

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According to a 2003 study published in the journal Gut, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, commonly known as NSAIDs, are often responsible for symptoms of indigestion. This is because they can inflame the lining of the stomach and cause peptic ulcers. So if you're on NSAIDs and experiencing indigestion, it might be time to talk to your doctor about switching medications.

You need to lose weight.

Woman stepping on scale to check weight

According to Atif Iqbal, MD, the medical director of the Digestive Care Center at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center, symptoms of indigestion, including heartburn and acid reflux, can be a sign that you should try to shed a few pounds. Study after study, including this 2013 report published in the journal Obesity, confirm that overweight and obese individuals frequently show more symptoms of indigestion, heartburn, and reflux than their average-weight counterparts—and losing weight generally alleviates the symptoms.

You have a heart condition.

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Unfortunately, it is all too common for people to mistake signs of a heart condition with signs of indigestion, sometimes with grave results. "Many people blame their symptoms on heartburn or indigestion," says Arthur. "This may very well be the case, but women often have atypical symptoms when it comes to heart disease, and anyone with risk factors such as diabetes or hypertension should see a doctor as soon as possible."

You have GERD.

Middle-aged woman clutching her chest in pain on the couch

If you experience indigestion that causes heartburn and reflux, it may be gastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly known as GERD. This condition, which can cause painful burning in your upper digestive tract, happens when food flows back up into your esophagus when the esophageal sphincter doesn't close properly during digestion. And while GERD causes little more than discomfort for many people, the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy reports that between 10 and 15 percent of GERD sufferers will develop Barrett's esophagus, changes in the esophageal lining that are a common precursor to esophageal cancer.

You have an ulcer.

Woman hunched over experiencing stomach pain and digestive issues

According to a 2010 study published in Therapeutic Advances in Gastroenterology, roughly 10 percent of patients evaluated for indigestion are found to have peptic ulcers. These open sores on the inside of your intestinal lining can cause pain, heartburn, and reflux, in addition to indigestion. Patients describe the sensation caused by ulcers as being like a burning or gnawing pain in the central abdomen, so be sure to talk to your doctor if you experience this symptom, as ulcers can lead to gastrointestinal bleeding, intestinal perforations, and serious infections.

You have celiac disease.

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Celiac disease is marked by an intolerance to gluten, a protein commonly found in grains including wheat, rye, and barley. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with celiac disease often endure damage to the lining of the small intestine, which leads to malabsorption of certain nutrients, as well as inflammation that stokes indigestion. If you suspect you may have celiac disease, try cutting out wheat for a week to see if your symptoms improve. If you're still not feeling any better, make sure to check in with your doctor.

You need less fat in your diet.

Woman eating donuts and chips while working form home

You're not alone if you find your indigestion symptoms are at their worst after wolfing down a burger and fries. A 2016 review of research in the journal Advanced Biomedical Research determined that fatty foods exacerbate the symptoms of indigestion. Patients regularly experienced unpleasant fullness, bloating, nausea, and upper gastrointestinal symptoms after eating fatty meals.

You have gastritis.


Gastritis is a condition characterized by gastric inflammation, and as the inflammation wears on the stomach lining, it can cause symptoms like pain, bloating, upset stomach, vomiting, and—you guessed it—indigestion. According to the Mayo Clinic, you should see a doctor if your symptoms last for a week or longer, as untreated gastritis can lead to stomach ulcers and other potentially serious complications.

You have stomach cancer.

Doctor Comforting an Older Patient, what your indigestion means

According to the American Cancer Society, indigestion is on the list of detectable signs of stomach cancer all people should look out for. While this and many other symptoms—like vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain, a feeling of fullness, and heartburn—can be attributed to more common illnesses like gastritis or food poisoning, it's always worth speaking to your doctor to rule out more serious conditions if your symptoms persist.

You have gastroparesis.

man feeling full not hungry

If you get that suddenly-full feeling after eating very little, or experience discomfort after moderately-sized meals, chances are you're not just experiencing run-of-the-mill indigestion. According to the Mayo Clinic, what you might have is gastroparesis, a condition in which the stomach is unable to properly empty itself due to nerve injury. Be sure to speak with your doctor about it, especially if you notice any corroborating symptoms like heartburn, reflux, bloating, or a major change in appetite.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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