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Stomach Pain After Eating: What Causes It?

There are some “rules” about eating that most of us heard growing up: Clear your plate before you leave the table. Don’t swim on a full stomach. If you swallow a watermelon seed, you’ll grow a watermelon in your stomach. Unfortunately, these rules are based on myths and old wives’ tales, and they aren’t especially helpful. What we could have used was some practical advice to avoid stomach pain after eating. 

Pinpointing the cause of an upset stomach after eating isn’t always easy. Stomach pain often presents in different ways and in different locations. The abdominal cavity is home to a large number of organs (esophagus, stomach, liver, spleen, pancreas, large and small intestine, and more) and a variety of different processes. Because there is so much going on, it can be hard to determine what’s actually happening.

Without question, what we eat and put into our bodies can have an effect on how we feel. Here are just a few food-related causes of stomach cramps or stomach pain after eating.

  • Food poisoning: Caused by eating food with germs or only its toxins, food poisoning can cause pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Pain is usually felt in the stomach and intestines.
  • Irritating foods: There are some foods that are notorious for irritating the gastric mucosa or causing/exacerbating gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining). Acidic foods, spicy foods, coffee, and alcohol all may potentially have this effect.
  • Allergies and intolerances: Both a food allergy (immune response) or a food intolerance (digestive response) can lead to stomach cramps after eating, nausea, and diarrhea.
  • Overeating: Pay attention to recommended serving size versus the actual portions on your plate. Overeating causes the stomach to stretch beyond its normal capacity, leading to pain, gas, discomfort, and bloating.

Whether or not you are making the right diet choices, there are a variety of medical conditions that may be the cause of an upset stomach after eating. These are some of the more common culprits of stomach pain:

  • Indigestion: Indigestion is best described as abdominal pain or a feeling of fullness after eating. It can be caused by another digestive problem or be caused by lifestyle, diet, or medications.
  • GERD (gastrointestinal reflux disease): You are probably familiar with the term heartburn, which is the number one symptom of GERD. This condition occurs when gastric contents move up into the esophagus, causing chest pain or a “fiery” feeling in the chest and a sour liquid in the throat or mouth.
  • Gastritis: Gastritis occurs when the lining of one’s stomach is inflamed and swollen. It can be caused by many things, but typically is a result of Helicobacter pylori infection exacerbated by diet and lifestyle choices or long-term use of certain medications.
  • Peptic ulcer: Most commonly caused by H.pylori infection or long-term use of aspirin or NSAIDs, peptic ulcers are open sores that develop on the inside lining of your stomach and the small intestine.
  • Pancreatitis: Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. This occurs when digestive juices or enzymes of the pancreas attack the pancreatic tissues. Pancreatitis can be short-term or long-term and is commonly caused by alcohol abuse or gallstone blockage.
  • Biliary tract disorders and gallstones: Cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder) can lead to gallstone formation which may block the gallbladder’s exit tube. This causes severe pain, nausea and buildup of bile, leading to jaundice.
  • Constipation: Though constipation is not always related to stomach pain after eating, some people do report bloating discomfort in either the small or large intestine.
  • Intestinal gas: Depending on a person’s sensitivity, some may experience significant pain after eating related to the buildup of gas in the stomach and the intestinal tract. Pain may radiate to the upper abdomen or chest.

There is an incredible connection between the mind and the body and the things we put into it. If you don’t have any of the above conditions but feel sick after eating, read on to discover how stress, anxiety, and “normal” medications may be causing your problem. 

  • Stress and anxiety: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a frustrating condition that causes abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. It currently has no known specific cause, but there is thought to be a link between IBS, sensitivity to stress, and regulating the response to stress. Research shows that 50–90 percent of IBS sufferers also have a psychiatric disorder like anxiety or depression.
  • Medications: There are a variety of medications that can lead to stomach pain after eating and/or digestive issues. NSAIDS, nitrates, calcium channel blockers, oral antibiotics, and birth control pills may cause GERD and reflux or irritate the lining of the stomach. Long-term use may lead to gastritis, ulcers, bleeding, or stomach perforation. 

Getting help from your doctor may be one of your best tools if you frequently experience an upset stomach after eating. They will likely perform a head-to-toe physical assessment and take a detailed history, noting aches and pains, possible causes, hereditary possibilities, things you’ve tried that have or have not worked, and lifestyle choices. There are also blood tests and imaging procedures your provider may want to perform.

Getting help from your doctor may be one of your best tools if you frequently experience an upset stomach after eating.

If you’d like to try to manage some of your symptoms before you visit your provider, there are many causes of pain after eating that can be corrected by over-the-counter (OTC) medications. These medications may help with gas, stomach acid neutralization, reduction in stomach acid production, improvement in bowel movement, and reduction of nausea. Pay attention to what you take and what does or doesn’t work, as your doctor will want that information. It may be helpful to keep notes on your phone so you have the information handy at your appointment. 

Prevention is always better than treatment. If you’re unsure of what’s causing your abdominal pain or nausea after eating, you can always make some changes to your diet and lifestyle habits that may help. 

Avoid foods that irritate your GI tract (like spicy foods, citrusy foods, and excessive alcohol), avoid overeating, and try to break bigger meals into smaller portions. Smoking is also an irritant to overall GI health. Reducing caffeine may also prove helpful.

Avoid foods that irritate your GI tract, avoid overeating, and try to break bigger meals into smaller portions.

It’s also important to eat foods that help your GI system. Foods that are high in fiber (brown rice, fruits and veggies, beans, and oats) will help improve bowel motility and prevent constipation. The more water and fluids you drink, the better (but avoid carbonation and caffeine if you can). Probiotic-rich food, like unsweetened yogurt, can also be helpful to the GI system.

Stay on top of your mental health and don’t forgo regular checkups. While stress and anxiety aren’t responsible for every stomach ache and pain, your body will respond to an excess of stressors in your life.  

Knowing when to seek immediate care for abdominal pain can be hard. However, there are a few signs and symptoms that are red flags and should be addressed with a doctor immediately.

  • Pain you’d describe as “the worst ever,” “ripping,” or “tearing”
  • Pain after trauma to the abdomen
  • Pain that intensifies over time
  • Pain accompanied by fever, chills, sweating
  • Pain that moves from stomach to right flank and/or back
  • Distended abdomen
  • Coffee-ground vomiting or blood in vomit
  • Dark stools or blood in stools
  • Excessive abdominal pain in pregnancy
  • Weakness, fatigue, dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Pulsating abdominal mass
  • Weight loss and change in bowel habits

If you find yourself constantly asking “Why does my stomach hurt when I eat?” don’t disregard your symptoms. While pain after eating is extremely common and often not an emergency, it’s also not something to be ignored. Whether or not you feel like you need to see a doctor, listen to your body, do some research, and make some changes to your diet and lifestyle. There is no guarantee that a simple change is all that you need, but it can certainly be the first step on the road back to a healthier you.

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