While occasional bouts of indigestion (also known as dyspepsia or heartburn or reflux) are nothing to worry about, they can be very uncomfortable, and frequent episodes may be linked to more serious problems.
What are the symptoms of indigestion?
Most of us have experienced indigestion at some point in our lives, and are familiar with its characteristic symptom of pain in the chest, stomach and/or abdomen that occurs after eating and often feels as though it is rising up the neck and throat. Other symptoms may include feelings of being overly full, burping, bloating, flatulence and sometimes nausea, vomiting, constipation or diarrhoea.
What are the symptoms of reflux?
During reflux some of the contents of the stomach move back up into the oesophagus or mouth, causing a sour or acidic taste in the mouth and throat and a burning pain behind the sternum and in the oesophagus. Recurrent reflux is termed gastroesophageal reflux disease (also known as GORD or GERD) and can interfere with your quality of life and increase the likelihood that you’ll develop other health problems, including inflammation, ulceration or narrowing of the oesophagus. In severe cases, the ongoing exposure to stomach acids may also cause structural changes to cells of the oesophagus and lead to more significant health problems.
What causes indigestion?
Indigestion is often triggered by eating too much food, eating too quickly, or eating while in a stressed or anxious state of mind. It is especially common after the consumption of fatty, spicy or rich foods, alcohol, and carbonated or caffeine-containing drinks, and the symptoms may also be brought on by lying down, bending over or lifting something heavy shortly after eating. Indigestion tends to become more common as we get older, and may be associated with producing too much or too little gastric acid or inadequate production of digestive enzymes. Other causes can include physical pressure on the digestive organs (as may occur during late pregnancy and in people who are overweight), hiatus hernia, or infection with the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (which causes stomach ulcers).
What causes reflux?
Under normal circumstances, the sphincter or valve at the junction of the oesophagus and stomach keeps the gastric juices and partially digested food safely contained in the stomach, the tissues of which are resistant to the acids needed for this phase of digestion. In reflux, weakness or displacement of the sphincter allows some of the stomach contents to move back up through the sphincter and enter the oesophagus, where their acidic nature causes the sensation of burning in the short-term, and may injure and inflame the tissues over the long-term. Reflux episodes are often triggered or exacerbated by the same factors that trigger indigestion (discussed above). Additional factors that may contribute to reflux include sluggish digestion (causing delayed progression of the stomach contents into lower parts of the digestive tract) and the use of certain medications. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the Stomach organ-meridian system is considered responsible for the extraction of nutrients and Qi (energy) from the food we eat, while the Spleen governs their subsequent distribution around the body and also directs the waste matter generated during digestion downwards to the intestines so it can be excreted. Poor eating habits (e.g. eating too much or overdoing rich or fatty foods) may interfere with the normal functioning of the Stomach and Spleen organ-meridian systems and create an accumulation of Heat and Qi in these organs. As a result, you may experience symptoms that are ‘hot’ in nature (such as heartburn and acidity) and that move in an upwards direction (as occurs in burping, reflux and nausea), rather than the downwards flow that is typical of healthy digestion.
Natural therapies for indigestion and reflux
Chinese herbs for indigestion and reflux
In TCM, herbs used to relieve occasional or recurrent symptoms of indigestion and reflux include Coptis Root (which is traditionally believed to drain Heat from the body and aid the removal of toxins) and Chinese Licorice (which enhances the functioning of the Stomach and Spleen organ-meridian systems). They are often accompanied by herbs that redirect ‘rebellious’ or upwardly mobile Qi to travel in a more appropriate downwards direction instead, thus relieving acid reflux and heartburn. Examples include Magnolia Bark, Pinellia, and Evodia Berry. The Western herb German Chamomile may also be beneficial as it has traditionally been used to relieve symptoms of indigestion, flatulence and abdominal discomfort, including digestive symptoms brought on by stress or nervous tension.
Diet and lifestyle recommendations for indigestion and reflux
- Avoid eating large, heavy, fatty or spicy meals, and instead eat 5-6 light meals per day
- Drink at least 6-8 glasses of water throughout the day, but steer clear of alcohol, carbonated beverages, and tea and coffee, all of which may exacerbate your symptoms
- Don’t rush your meals; relax and enjoy your food, ensuring that you chew it well before swallowing
- Stop smoking if you haven’t already as it may promote gastric acidity
- If your indigestion or reflux is triggered or worsened when you lie flat, try elevating the head of your bed by a few inches so that the effects of gravity help to encourage your Qi and the food you’re digesting to move downwards through the body
- Being overweight increases the likelihood that you’ll experience indigestion and reflux, so if appropriate, manage your weight by adopting a healthy diet and increasing your activity levels (but avoid exercising straight after eating, which may trigger indigestion)
- Anything that puts pressure on your digestive organs can also trigger indigestion symptoms, so where possible, avoid eating while wearing constrictive clothing and don’t engage in tasks that involve bending over or lifting heavy items after meals
When should you see your doctor or other health professional about indigestion and reflux?
- The symptoms of a heart attack can sometimes mimic those of indigestion, causing a heavy, squeezing pain in the chest, sometimes accompanied by dizziness, altered breathing or pain in the back, neck or arms. If you’re worried that you or someone else may be experiencing a heart attack, call for an ambulance immediately
- Frequent, recurrent or severe episodes of indigestion or reflux should be investigated by your doctor or healthcare professional as they may be symptoms of underlying disease