Roughly one in four Americans experience indigestion, pain or discomfort in your upper abdomen during or after you finish a meal. Also called dyspepsia, indigestion can include feelings of uncomfortable fullness, bloating or nausea, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
For many people with indigestion, high-fat foods are a common trigger. Indigestion is different from heartburn (a burning pain in your chest), although many people have symptoms of both. While indigestion can be caused by an underlying condition — like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcer disease or gallstones — often the cause is unknown.
You can attempt to prevent it by figuring out what worsens your indigestion symptoms. For some, the culprit is eating too much, eating too fast, eating while stressed or eating particular foods.
Fatty Foods Worsen Indigestion
Anecdotally, many people find that their indigestion symptoms worsen when they eat greasy foods. And some laboratory studies have confirmed that fat leads to more indigestion symptoms, according to an April 2016 review in Advanced Biomedical Research. A January 2015 study that surveyed nearly 400 patients with indigestion, which was published in the Middle East Journal of Digestive Diseases, concluded that spicy, pickled and high-fat foods especially aggravated their symptoms.
It's not known exactly why high-fat or greasy meals provoke indigestion in some people.
"Fats take longer to digest then proteins and carbohydrates, so they sit in the stomach for longer," says Lindsey Albenberg, DO, a spokesperson of the American Gastroenterological Association and an attending physician in the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Some studies also show that high-fat meals can cause the muscle at the base of the esophagus to relax more frequently, she adds. When this happens, "it is more prone to allow stomach contents to reflux into the esophagus" — causing acid reflux.
In a April 2016 review article in Advanced Biomedical Research, researchers suggested that fat may induce indigestion symptoms via its effect on the hormone cholecystokinin, but "large-scale studies are required to evaluate the impact of dietary factors on symptoms."
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, some people find their indigestion improves if they eat several small, low-fat meals throughout the day at a slow pace. It may also help to refrain from smoking, coffee, carbonated beverages and alcohol and, if possible, to avoid anti-inflammatory medications, such as aspirin, that can irritate the stomach lining. Reducing stress and getting enough sleep is also important in managing indigestion symptoms.
Other Indigestion Treatment Options
If diet and lifestyle changes haven't led to an improvement in your indigestion symptoms, there are a range of over-the-counter and prescription medications your doctor may recommend, including antacids, H2 receptor antagonists (H2RAs), proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) and prokinetics. These medications reduce acid production or help the stomach move food more quickly into the small intestine.
"Indigestion may require medications if it is occurring more than once or twice per week or if it associated with nausea/vomiting, poor appetite and weight loss or difficulty swallowing," Dr. Albenberg says. In addition, the NIDDK recommends seeking medical care right away if your indigestion is accompanied by black tarry stools, bloody vomit or pain in the chest, jaw, neck or arm.
- The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Indigestion"
- MedlinePlus: "Indigestion"
- American College of Gastroenterology: "Dyspepsia"
- Advanced Biomedical Research: "Dietary Fat Intake and Functional Dyspepsia"
- Middle East Journal of Digestive Diseases: "The Role of Diet in the Management of Non-Ulcer Dyspepsia"