What Your Upset Stomach is Trying to Tell You

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Was it that chicken you ate late at night or something else? Whether it’s indigestion, heartburn, nausea or gas, these symptoms are all commonly associated with an upset stomach. Doug Purdy, MD, gastroenterologist at UnityPoint Health, explains why tummy troubles happen and how to get relief. 

What Causes an Upset Stomach?

An upset stomach can be the result of several different factors and have a variety of symptoms, such as: 


“Constipation is typically defined as having less than three bowel movements in a week,” Dr. Purdy says.

Feeling constipated isn’t uncommon, but for some people, it can be chronic and present a real problem, making daily tasks feel less enjoyable. The reason someone might be constipated varies greatly. Signs and symptoms often include: 

  • Having stools that look like pebbles and are difficult to pass
  • Straining while trying to have a bowel movement
  • Feeling like you can’t empty your bowel near the rectum

How to get relief greatly depends on why you’re constipated, but Dr. Purdy says the following are often recommended to give your bowels some extra assistance: 

  • Moving your body. This increases the muscle activity in the colon.
  • Getting more fiber. A good source is fresh fruits and vegetables. 
  • Using a laxative. This can include stool softeners, suppositories, bower stimulants, fiber supplements and lubricants. 
  • Taking prescription medication. If you aren’t having luck with dietary changes and over-the-counter medication, your doctor may write a prescription that can help get things moving. 


Nausea is a symptom commonly associated with an upset stomach or uneasiness of the stomach. However, what causes nausea can sometimes be hard to pinpoint. Nausea is commonly caused by:

  • Gastroenteritis (Stomach flu)
  • GERD (Acid reflux)
  • Peptic ulcer disease
  • Gastritis 
  • Medications 
  • Migraine
  • Rotavirus
  • Morning sickness
  • Motion sickness
  • Food poisoning
  • Diet (junk food, overeating)
  • Severe pain (pancreatitis, cholecystitis, kidney stones)

Nausea could also be a warning sign for certain medical conditions, such as: 

How to Get Rid of Nausea 

When feeling nauseous, the fastest way to relief is by taking an over-the-counter anti-nausea medication like Dramamine or Pepto-Bismol, but there are other things you can do as well, including: 

  • Sipping clear or ice-cold drinks
  • Drinking peppermint, chamomile or ginger tea
  • Eating slowly and smaller, more frequent meals
  • Getting some fresh air by opening a window or stepping outside
  • Trying to focus on something other than your nausea
  • Putting an ice pack or cool, wet cloth on the back of your neck to decrease body temperature


Dr. Purdy says heartburn feels like burning in your chest and is often worse after a meal or when bending over or lying down. 

What Causes Heartburn

“The main cause of heartburn is acid reflux, which is the backup of stomach acid into a person’s esophagus," Dr. Purdy says. Factors that can contribute to heartburn include:

  • Eating meals too quickly
  • Overeating
  • Pregnancy
  • Alcohol, caffeine, chocolate
  • Fatty and greasy foods
  • Eating too close to bedtime
  • Wearing tight fitting clothes

Heartburn Relief

Occasionally experiencing heartburn is common and shouldn’t cause alarm. 

“In addition to adjusting your diet and making lifestyle modifications, your doctor may prescribe medication, called H2-blockers (Famotidine/Pepcid) or proton pump inhibitors (Omeprazole, Pantoprazole), to help suppress your stomach acid. If your heartburn doesn't start to subside once the medication kicks in and your diet has been modified, then it's time to talk to your doctor to see if further evaluation is needed,” Dr. Purdy says.   


Indigestion, also called dyspepsia or upset stomach, is the discomfort a person feels in the upper part of their abdomen. They often experience feeling full soon after starting a meal or an uncomfortable fullness after a meal, discomfort or burning in their stomach and bloating.

Indigestion can be triggered by medication, different foods and drinks. More specifically, it can be caused by:

  • Eating too quickly
  • Overeating
  • Spicy or greasy foods
  • Smoking
  • Too much caffeine, alcohol or chocolate
  • Antibiotics, pain relievers and supplements

Some medical conditions can cause indigestion, ulcers, gallstones, constipation or Celiac disease. Relief can come from eating smaller meals, eliminating caffeine and avoiding certain pain relievers. 


“Bloating is when your abdomen (stomach) feels full, tight and uncomfortable with the sensation of having too much gas,” Dr. Purdy says. Bloating can cause abdominal pain that ranges from mild to moderate. Common causes of bloating include:

  • Carbonated beverages
  • Eating too quickly
  • Constipation
  • Gastrointestinal infection
  • Celiac disease
  • Lactose/fructose intolerance
  • Irritable bowel syndrome

Natural Ways to Relieve Bloating

Commonly, flatulence (farting), burping or having a bowel movement will help put an end to bloating. Other forms of relief for bloating include reducing your intake of gas-producing foods, including:

  • Beans or lentils
  • Vegetables like broccoli, Brussel sprouts or asparagus
  • Corn, pasta and potatoes, which are rich in starch 
  • Lactose, which is a natural sugar in milk
  • Fructose, another natural sugar found in pears, wheat and some sodas
  • Sorbitol, an artificial sweetener
  • Fruits high in soluble fiber 

Most of these foods are healthy, so be sure to figure out what your troublemakers are so you can add nutrient-dense food back into your diet. Another great way to reduce bloating after eating is to move your body. Try going for a walk after your meal to help ease discomfort. If your bloating is persistent, talk to your doctor

Other Causes for an Upset Stomach

The build-up of gas in the intestines can be really uncomfortable for people and is another common reason for digestive distress. If you’re experiencing trapped gas that feels constant, and it’s interfering with your daily activities, talk to your doctor about pinpointing the cause, so you can find some relief.  

Vomiting is another common by-product, and many times goes hand-in-hand with feelings of nausea. There are several reasons for vomiting ranging from issues such as motion sickness, overuse of alcohol to gastroenteritis (stomach flu) and allergic reactions. The color of your vomit can also be a telltale sign on an underlying health issue. 

Get Care Online with Virtual Urgent Care

An upset stomach rarely occurs at a convenient time. Virtual urgent care works for you to determine what’s causing your stomach pain. It’s available for anyone ages two and up who lives in Iowa. Make an appointment in MyUnityPoint, our app for patients.