Picture this: You just enjoyed an absolutely amazing meal. But not long afterwards, you find yourself doubled over in pain and wondering, Why does my stomach hurt after I eat? Why is my food attacking me like this?
A number of possible culprits could be behind your stomach or abdominal pain. Some are fleeting, while others are chronic. But it’s important to figure out what the most likely cause is, so you can take the correct steps to reduce or hopefully eliminate the pain.
Why Does My Stomach Hurt After I Eat?
Here are some possible reasons why you may experience pain in your stomach after you eat:
Imagine this situation. You’re already constipated, with some abdominal pain and bloating. Then you eat another meal. Your body attempts to digest the extra food, and you feel even worse. This is pretty common, as the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) estimates that 16 out of 100 Adults have symptoms of constipation.
2. Heart burn
Heartburn can cause burning pain or discomfort in your chest from your stomach all the way to your throat. Fortunately, it’s usually pretty easily treated with a product that neutralizes or reduces stomach acid, which can include an antacid like Tums or Rolaids, an H2 blocker that can reduce stomach acid, or a proton pump inhibitor. You can also take steps to minimize the problem, like eating more slowly and giving yourself plenty of time between eating and lying down, says dr Joseph Jennings, MD, Gastroenterologist with MedStar Health.
Related: The Truth About How Many Times a Day (or Week) You Should Actually Be Pooping
Acid reflux is a common cause of stomach pain, according to Dr. Jennings. “Our stomach makes a lot of acid, and when we eat food, we tell our stomach to make more acid,” he explains. And when that stomach acid regularly flows backward up into your esophagus and causes irritation, you’re experiencing gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
4. Food intolerance
Sometimes your digestive system just doesn’t like a particular kind of food. For example, the most common type of food intolerance is intolerance of lactose, a type of sugar found in milk and dairy products, according to the Cleveland Clinic. If you don’t have enough of an enzyme called lactase that your small intestine needs to digest the lactose, you may find yourself doubled up with stomach cramps or even nausea and diarrhea after enjoying some cheese or butter.
5. Food allergies
If you have a food allergy, your immune system reacts against an ingredient in a particular food and mounts a response against it. According to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), the most common food allergens are milk, egg, peanuts, soy, wheat, tree nuts, shellfish, fish and sesame. But while you may experience stomach pain or cramps after eating a food you’re allergic to, you may develop other serious symptoms, including chest pain, hives, itchy skin, and shortness of breath. But the most serious possible reaction is anaphylaxis, which is a potentially fatal reaction, which is why experts typically recommend avoiding any foods that you’re allergic to.
Related: Food Poisoning Vs. the Stomach Flu—What’s the Difference? Here’s Everything You Need to Know
6. Food poisoning
Is there anything that feels quite as terrible as a bout of food poisoning? Foodborne illness can cause terrible stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the culprit could be any of a number of different types of bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins, chemicals, or molds. In fact, there are 250 different types of food poisoning, with some of the most common ones being E. coli, salmonella other listeria bacteria. About 48 million cases of foodborne illness occur each year in the United States, so if you’re regretting that meal while you’re hunched over the toilet, you are far from alone.
Gastritis is inflammation of the lining of the stomach. It can be tricky, though. It can occur quickly or develop slowly over time. You may develop pain in your upper abdomen after eating, but it might also improve after eating, according to the Mayo Clinic. And sometimes it doesn’t cause any symptoms at all.
8. Celiac disease
If you have celiac disease and you accidentally eat something that contains gluten, your stomach and GI system will let you know that you’ve made a critical error. With this condition, your body mounts an immune reaction to gluten. You may experience symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea.
Related: Suffering From a Stomach Virus? Here’s What to Do
9. Irritable bowel syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a chronic condition that affects the large intestine. According to the Mayo Clinic, certain foods can trigger or exacerbated IBS symptoms. The list includes dairy products, citrus, wheat, cabbage and beans. Carbonated drinks and milk may also make IBS symptoms worse.
Other Causes of Stomach Pain
It’s worth noting that you could be experiencing other causes of your stomach pain, and they may or may not be related to what (or how) you eat. A couple of relatively common possibilities include:
Stress and anxiety can make your stomach roll or knot up with pain. In fact, stress and anxiety are both common causes of stomach pain and other GI issues, according to UChicago Medicine. Your brain releases stress hormones that may affect how your GI system moves and processes waste, and that can make you feel pretty lousy.
Medication side effects
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, some medication can irritate your stomach or make your stomach hurt. Perhaps the most notorious is ibuprofen, which is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Sometimes taking ibuprofen with food or a glass of milk can alleviate the problem, but if you gulped down a couple of ibuprofen with some food and you notice some pain, it could still be the culprit.
People with peptic ulcer disease have developed painful sores in the lining of their stomachs or the upper part of their small intestines. Contrary to what you might think, food and don’t stress don’t cause ulcers–certain kinds of bacteria do, so you treat the bacteria to clear up the ulcers. However, it may take a few weeks to heal. And in the meantime, you might want to be cautious about drinking milk, since the Cleveland Clinic cautions that may temporarily coat the lining and soothe the ulcer pain but it will spur your stomach to produce more acid, which can make your ulcer pain worse.
What to Do If You Develop Stomach Pain After Eating
Chances are, stopping (or at least reducing) the pain is your first priority. But how do you know if it’s really serious or not?
“It really depends on the severity or intensity of the pain,” says dr Christine Lee, M.D, a gastroenterologist with the Cleveland Clinic. “If it’s less intense, you can wait to see if it resolves. More severe or intense symptoms should seek more urgent evaluation.”
Most people know their bodies better than anyone else—and they know what they can tolerate and what they can’t, Dr. Lee notes. And if you’ve experienced certain kinds of pain before, you may also know how to handle or treat the pain.
But in general, here are her suggestions for how to proceed if you develop stomach pain:
- Low severity or low intensity: consult your primary care provider
- Moderately intense or moderately severe pain: go to an urgent care center
- Severe or intense pain: go to the emergency department.
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