Struggling with indigestion and heartburn?
Indigestion is a common problem that’s often viewed as a niggle and something to put up with rather than complain about or put the effort in to treat. We have all experienced indigestion at some point and there are many reasons why it occurs but if you feel this type of discomfort regularly after eating then it can become a real hindrance on day-to-day life and your overall feeling of wellness. Even though numerous reasons for indigestion exist, there are many simple changes you can make to your diet and lifestyle to avoid it.
What is indigestion and heartburn?
Although they share the same type of triggers, they’re not the same as indigestion is the condition of which heartburn is a symptom. Indigestion is characterised by a feeling of discomfort in the upper abdomen, which occurs after you’ve eaten, causing symptoms such as bloating, excess wind, belching and nausea.
Heartburn is characterised by a burning sensation in your chest and throat as excess stomach acid makes its way up the oesophagus, which is also referred to as ‘reflux’. If heartburn occurs regularly throughout the week then you may be diagnosed with a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD.
Who is more at risk of indigestion and heartburn?
Anyone can experience indigestion and most of us have encountered it during the festive season as we overindulge in rich food and a few too many glasses of vino. Common diet and lifestyle factors that encourage indigestion include:
- Eating too quickly
- Medication – aspirin, antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).
- Eating ‘on-the-go’
- Excess alcohol
- Excess coffee
- Health conditions – cholecystitis (inflammation in the gall bladder), gastritis (inflammation in the stomach), stomach ulcers
- Spicy foods
Heartburn shares a similar set of triggers but is particularly common in people carrying too much weight or pregnant women, where the pressure put upon the abdomen forces fluids back up the oesophagus.
Bloating is a symptom of indigestion, but it’s important not to confuse heartburn with bloating. Common treatments for bloating include herbs and spices such as mint, fennel seed and caraway seed. These are often used in teas to help with bloating after eating as they relax the valve that connects the stomach and oesophagus. This effect helps to release excess gas but if the issue is heartburn then it will make matters worse as fluids find their way up the oesophagus more easily.
Losing weight will help with heartburn and by following a healthy diet you can help to ease indigestion. Addressing other diet and lifestyle factors will help to combat indigestion, which in turn will also help to reduce the risk of heartburn.
Start by changing the way you eat
Eating habits can be just as important as the food and drink you include in your diet when it comes to tackling indigestion. Start by making changes to the way you eat.
- Serve smaller portions of food in a single sitting and eat little and often if this helps.
- Avoid eating large meals immediately before you go to bed as lying down will only make digestion more difficult as well as encouraging heartburn.
- Don’t rush your food as this can encourage more air to enter the stomach and encourage bloating.
- Chew your food slowly to allow the enzymes that aid digestion to be stimulated.
- Avoid eating ‘on-the-hoof’.
- Make the time to sit down with your meal and focus on the job in hand. Distractions and stress can cause indigestion; eat at the table rather than in front of your computer whilst you’re frantically trying to meet a deadline.
- Try not to skip meals or go for long periods of time without eating as this can encourage bloating, especially if you suddenly eat a large meal.
Now look at what you’re eating and drinking
If changing the way you eat has made little difference, then take a look at the food and drink in your diet. You can keep a diary for a few days to track your diet and jotting down how you felt after eating will help you identify culprit food and drinks. I get that this takes quite a bit of motivation and to be honest, in the context of your overall diet and eating habits, it may be that a certain food affects your digestion one day but not the next.
What you may identify is the effect of a potential food intolerance. Lactose (found in dairy foods) and gluten (found in grains such as wheat) are common food intolerances that can cause bloating and other symptoms of indigestion. A very stressful lifestyle can also encourage the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which causes digestive upset. If you suspect either of these things to be causing the issue, then you can seek the advice of a dietitian.
There are plenty of diet strategies that you can follow, which have been shown to help with indigestion and heartburn.
- Try to follow a low-fat diet as high-fat (rich) foods such as full fat dairy, fatty cuts of meat or rich puddings and sauces can take longer to digest and leave the stomach, causing more stomach acid to be produced and increasing the risk of heartburn.
- Make you meals from a good balance of starchy foods, vegetables and lean protein (protein helps to stimulate the gall bladder to produce more bile that aids digestion).
- Include oily fish in your diet each week as they contain omega 3 fatty acids that may help to tackle inflammation in the gut wall, which contributes to indigestion.
- Try to avoid raw vegetables initially to see if this helps with indigestion as they can be difficult to digest.
- Beans, pulses and lentils are very high in fibre and can cause bloating, especially if you’re not used to eating. Introduce these foods into your diet slowly and make sure you drink plenty of water to allow the fibre to swell and do its job.
- You may want to try and cut back on ‘windy’ vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts to help with bloating associated with indigestion.
- Other foods that have been shown to trigger heartburn specifically include citrus fruits, spicy foods and caffeinated drinks, which can all increase the production of stomach acid.
Don’t underestimate the effects of stress
Stress has become a common side-effect of our modern way of living and the ripple effect on health has been shown to reach many areas of health. Stress not only impacts on mental health but encourages inflammation in the body, which is now understood to be a key risk factor for many diseases. Stress is also a key factor in the development of irritable bowel syndrome (1).
It may seem obvious that trying to eat when you’re highly stressed is likely to cause digestive complaints and studies have shown that people with GERD report stress as something that exacerbates the condition (2,3). However, whether the effect of stress is due to excess stomach acid is up for debate as many scientists are of the opinion that GERD makes people more sensitive to smaller amounts of acid in the oesophagus (4,5).
Stress can also lead to erratic eating patterns that may cause indigestion. Diet and lifestyle choices can also be affected by stress and choosing unhealthy foods, gaining weight, smoking and drinking excessively can all lead to indigestion. Sleep is also affected by stress and can lead to low mood and a lack of motivation to follow a healthy diet.
Try to address your stress by practicing breathing or relaxation techniques such as meditation. There are many apps available that can help you to do this.
Can you still drink alcohol?
Alcohol is known to contribute to indigestion, especially heartburn, but it does affect people differently and you may not necessarily need to give up your favourite tipple completely. Start by cutting alcohol out completely to see how you feel then introduce it back in slowly as you may find your heartburn is not affected by the odd glass of vino. Avoid mixing your booze with fizzy drinks as this can encourage bloating and don’t drink too close to bedtime as lying flat can encourage reflux.
There are so many different reasons why you may suffer with indigestion and heartburn. As a ‘one-off’, indigestion may be anticipated as a result of over-indulgence, but if it persists then there are plenty of ways you can tackle the issue by making simple changes to your diet and lifestyle.