Indigestion or dyspepsia usually refers to abdominal discomfort. In general, people use the term indigestion to describe discomforts, like abdominal bloating, belching, nausea, abdominal pain, and a burning sensation in the abdomen and the chest. Heartburn or pyrosis can also be a sign of indigestion, but the two conditions are not same.
Heartburn is associated with the acid reflux disease or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is characterized by the regurgitation of stomach content and acid to the esophagus. Heartburn causes a painful burning sensation in the chest, just behind the breastbone, usually after eating a meal. Despite the difference between these two conditions, they can occur simultaneously at times.
Dyspepsia and Heartburn
Both the conditions can sometimes occur due to acid reflux disease, where stomach content and acid regurgitate to the esophagus. This can happen when the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) weakens or fails to function properly. LES is a valve-like structure that allows food to enter the stomach from the esophagus, but prevents its backward flow from the stomach to the esophagus.
When LES weakens or fails to function properly, food and stomach acid can flow back to the esophagus. Unlike stomach, the esophagus does not have any lining to protect it from stomach acid, for which the regurgitation of food and acid produces a burning sensation in the chest, and sometimes at the back of the throat.
Indigestion and GERD can also be triggered by a heavy meal. Eating too fast or eating spicy, and fatty or greasy food can also cause indigestion and heartburn in some individuals. Foods that trigger GERD can vary from one individual to another. In general, acidic food, tomato and tomato-based products, chocolates, fried food, fatty and spicy food, carbonated beverages, onion, garlic, citrus fruits, and the excessive consumption of alcohol, caffeine, or caffeinated beverages can trigger GERD in some individulas.
Apart from these, some other possible causes of indigestion are, smoking, gallbladder disease, gastric and duodenal ulcer, gastritis, pancreatitis, use of certain medications like aspirin, antibiotics, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, hiatal hernia, a high level stress, and stomach cancer.
As mentioned already, heartburn can be a sign of indigestion. However, apart from heartburn, indigestion can produce many other symptoms. The more commonly observed indigestion symptoms are:
- A burning sensation in the chest behind the breastbone (heartburn)
- Pain in the upper abdominal area and the chest
- Abdominal bloating
- Loss of appetite
- A feeling of abdominal fullness
Indigestion can occasionally produce some severe symptoms. Such symptoms are usually observed when dyspepsia is associated with an underlying health condition, like peptic ulcers. Some of the serious symptoms of indigestion that call for immediate medical attention are:
- Blood in vomit
- Black, tarry stool
- Severe pain in the abdomen
- Unusual weight loss
- Stomach discomfort not related to eating
Heartburn, on the other hand, is generally a sign of acid reflux disease. The reflux or regurgitation of stomach acid and food to the esophagus can produce the following symptoms:
- A burning sensation or pain in the chest, behind the breastbone
- A burning sensation in the throat
- Sour or acidic taste in the mouth
- A sore throat
- Difficulty in swallowing
- Hoarseness of voice
The treatment of these two conditions are more or less similar. Physicians usually suggest dietary and lifestyle changes, along with medications to treat both the conditions. The medications that are normally used for this purpose are, antacids and H2 blockers.
Some dietary and lifestyle changes, such as avoiding the particular foods that trigger the symptoms of GERD, eating several small meals throughout the day instead of three large meals, avoiding excessive consumption of alcohol, quitting smoking, avoiding lying down immediately after having a meal, and sleeping in a slightly elevated position, can also provide significant relief.
Certain home remedies can also prove effective in alleviating the painful symptoms of indigestion and heartburn. Some such natural heartburn remedies are, ginger and ginger tea, chamomile tea, raw almonds, cold milk, honey, papaya, milk of raw coconut, and lemon juice.
Regular physical activity can help manage the symptoms of digestive problems. People suffering from these conditions should drink plenty of water throughout the day, and chew food properly. However, if all these measures fail to provide relief, and the episodes of heartburn or dyspepsia become quite frequent, then consider to get the condition medically evaluated.