Feeling a bit queasy after a large and heavy meal is normal, but regularly experiencing nausea after eating can point to an underlying medical condition. The symptom usually occurs half an hour or so after a meal, and it may pass quickly or continue for up to three hours depending on the underlying health issue.
A wide range of mild to severe medical conditions could manifest themselves through nausea after eating. Most but not all of these conditions are related to the digestive system. Read on to learn of the medical causes and ways to manage and prevent nausea after a meal.
1. Acid reflux
Even though the hallmark of gastroesophageal disease (GERD) is heartburn, the condition could also cause nausea after a meal. Also known as acid reflux, GERD occurs because the muscle that prevents stomach acids from going up into the esophagus is malfunctioning. When the acids leak out into the esophagus, they damage and irritate the lining of the esophagus, which usually causes a burning sensation in the chest known as heartburn. This irritation may also trigger nausea in some people.
If you experience heartburn and nausea after a meal, this could be due to GERD. Even though GERD isn’t considered a life-threatening condition, it could lead to complications and should be addressed by your doctor. Late snacks and meals, alcohol as well as excessively acidic, fatty, or spicy foods are known to aggravate GERD and should be avoided.
2. Stomach flu and food poisoning
Sometimes, the food you eat is directly causing your symptoms. Foods that are not fresh or have not been stored or prepared properly can become contaminated by bacteria or viruses that wreak havoc in your digestive system. These bacteria and viruses are highly contagious and cause inflammation in the stomach and GI tract.
Patients suffering from food poisoning or the stomach flu rarely experience nausea alone. In most cases, one also has diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and a fever. These symptoms usually appear hours after you’ve eaten contaminated food, and may persist for days.
Rest, eating bland foods, and drinking lots of fluids usually help speed up the recovery, but if symptoms persist for more than 3 days or worsen, you must seek medical help.
Migraines are known to cause nausea after eating as well. The feeling of nausea can be quite intense and accompanied by dizziness, vomiting, and stomachaches. Certain foods, such as aged cheeses, alcohol, and dairy are known to trigger migraines, so getting a migraine after a meal is common.
The connection between migraines and nausea is poorly understood, but scientists believe it can be linked to low serotonin levels that are characteristic of migraines. Low serotonin is known to make people queasy. Another theory is that an increase in blood pressure caused by the migraine could trigger nausea and vomiting. In rare cases, mostly in children, nausea and vomiting can be the only symptom of a migraine.
4. Food Allergies and Intolerances
Food intolerances and food allergies are a common cause of nausea too, but the two shouldn’t be conflated or confused.
Food intolerances do not involve the immune system but can cause nausea hours after the food is eaten. When doctors talk about food intolerances, they refer to the inability of your digestive system to process certain foods, such as lactose or gluten. Food intolerances can manifest themselves through nausea hours after the food has been eaten and are often accompanied by stomach pains, bloating, and diarrhea.
Food allergies, on the other hand, are an extreme immune reaction to certain foods. Nausea triggered by a food allergy can start seconds or minutes after ingesting the food and co-occurs with difficulty swallowing, breathing, and swelling in the face or lips. Shellfish, eggs, nuts, or eggs are all common food allergens. Food allergies require urgent medication and are considered a medical emergency.
5. Motion Sickness
Motion sickness occurs when your body perceives conflicting signals on whether or not you are moving, and the brain has difficulty processing those mixed messages. When you’re in a car, for example, the eyes and the vestibular system in the inner ear are both telling the brain that you’re moving, but the feet and the muscles sense no motion.
These conflicting messages make people sensitive to motion sickness develop nausea and vomiting. Eating food before and after moving or riding somewhere is known to intensify the feeling of nausea.
6. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Nausea after a meal is one of the most widespread complaints in people suffering from IBS. Other symptoms include bloating, stomach cramps, constipation, and diarrhea. IBS is a complex and poorly understood medical condition that affects the gut.
“There is no exact cause of an IBS flare-up. However, most symptoms, such as vomiting, tend to worsen after consuming food that is difficult to digest,” stated Dr. Niket Sonpal, a gastroenterologist, to the Insider. Since IBS is a chronic condition, people who suffer from this condition learn the specific foods that trigger their symptoms and learn to avoid them. Stress is another known contributor to IBS.
7. Gallbladder Issues
If you’re experiencing nausea after eating fatty foods specifically, this could point to a gallbladder issue. The gallbladder is a small organ beneath the liver that secretes bile into the small intestine. Bile is essential for the digestion of fats. When the gallbladder cannot excrete bile due to a gallstone or another issue, it fills up with bile and stretches out. This can result in nausea and pain in the right side of the belly.
Gallbladder issues are treatable, fairly common, and rarely life-threatening, but they can be quite uncomfortable and painful. Other signs that something is wrong with your gallbladder are dark urine, fever, chills, and your skin and the whites of the eyes turning yellow.
If you’ve ever felt like your stomach turned into a bit knot right before a serious conversation or public speech, you’re well aware of the ways stress and anxiety can contribute to an upset stomach. When you’re anxious, the brain produces stress hormones that can make the GI tract contract either faster or slower.
This can lead to the proverbial knot in the stomach, loss of appetite, nausea, and even vomiting that tend to be worse on a full stomach. Not only acutely stressful situations like the stage fright example we mentioned earlier can cause digestive issues. Chronic stress can cause similar symptoms, but they can be less pronounced. Getting the stress and anxiety under control will resolve your stomach issues too.
Feeling sick on a full stomach isn’t necessarily a symptom of a disease. One of the earliest signs of pregnancy is a queasy feeling in the stomach we often refer to as “morning sickness.” Pregnancy triggers the secretion of the human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) hormone in the body.
Unfortunately, HCG often triggers nausea. You may be feeling nauseous in the morning, before or after a meal. Sometimes, hormonal changes can slow down digestion or alter the balance of gut bacteria, both of which could be why you’re feeling nauseous too.
How to Manage Nausea After a Meal
In most cases, nausea will go away on its own once you find and address the cause of this symptom. Needless to say, the outlook and the time frame for recovery depends on the cause as well. If you’re experiencing nausea at the moment or you’re looking for preventative measures, consider these tips:
Opt for smaller meals more often to take off some pressure from your digestive system.
Avoid driving, running, or doing any other demanding activities after eating.
Don’t brush your teeth right after eating.
Suck on ice cubes to reduce nausea and calm down your stomach.
Rest and engage in relaxing activities after a meal.
Take your time when you’re eating or drinking.
Sip on some ginger tea or mint tea to reduce nausea.