Is Stomach Pain After Having Eaten A Serious Problem?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated March 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Though stomach pain can be a common symptom of many issues, feeling sick regularly can feel uncomfortable and distracting. You might feel that an upset stomach is an insignificant symptom or something to ignore. However, stomach pain can be an underlying cause of many physical and psychological conditions, and it's important to pay attention to your gastrointestinal health.

A teenager and his mom and dad sit at the kitchen table and eat a meal together.
Stomach pain can be a symptom of emotional distress

Allergies

In recent years, there has been an increase in allergic reactions or food intolerances to certain foods. Experts theorize that allergies have increased due to changing environments and increased sterilization in many cultures. Additionally, more allergy testing may be available now than in the past, including simple blood test options.  

A moderate food allergy may lead to difficulty in the digestive tract, stomach cramps, abnormal bowel movements, and other symptoms. In some cases, over-the-counter pain medications may be beneficial, but speak to your doctor about when to use these medications. 

If your stomach hurts after eating, you may choose to speak to a doctor about the potential for food allergies or celiac disease. Celiac disease is a chronic immune disease that can cause intolerance to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, their immune system attacks their small intestine, causing damage and inflammation. This can lead to a range of negative gastrointestinal symptoms, including stomach ache, bloating, abdominal cramping, persistent diarrhea, and weight loss.

Lactose intolerance is another potential culprit to consider when experiencing digestive symptoms such as abdominal cramps, bloating, gas, and diarrhea, particularly if these symptoms occur after consuming dairy products. Lactose intolerance is a common condition that affects people who have difficulty digesting lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. While lactose intolerance is not typically life-threatening, it can cause significant discomfort and may exacerbate chronic gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

To keep track of food intolerances yourself, consider keeping a food diary. By keeping track of what you eat and how you feel after you eat it, you may be able to find a food product that your body has trouble digesting. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist to develop a plan when you've noticed a pattern. 

Allergies can cause a range of physical symptoms, including severe pain, difficulty swallowing, fatigue, mood changes, weight loss, and other negative gastrointestinal symptoms. If you experience pain after eating, it may be worth the effort to identify the specific food that is causing the reaction so you can prevent stomach pain and enjoy your meals.

A physical condition 

If you notice stomach pain or chest pain after eating and it's not a recurring symptom, it may be a sign of foodborne illness or another physical condition. A cold or stomach flu may affect the digestive system and create an abnormal immune response, making your stomach hurt as a result. If you start to have stomach pain after a snack, along with other symptoms, you may be experiencing the early stages of an illness. Drink water, rest, and seek medical attention if you experience shortness of breath, chest pains, or a fever. 

In the case of foodborne illness, there is a chance that food can make you sick if it is expired or prepared incorrectly. Common symptoms of food poisoning include vomiting, diarrhea, and other flu-like symptoms. To prevent foodborne illness, avoid cross-contamination of bacteria, and check expiry dates. In foods such as chicken and pork, ensure you cook the meat to its recommended inner temperature and wash your hands after touching raw meat. 

Illnesses and foodborne diseases can require medical attention, as the body may quickly become dehydrated. If symptoms progress quickly and suddenly, or you have a medical emergency, get medical attention as soon as possible.

Common gastrointestinal and digestive system issues

Below are a couple of common gastrointestinal and digestive system issues that may cause pain in the stomach after eating. A physical exam from your doctor can help diagnose these conditions.

Acid reflux

Acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are digestive disorders that involve the flow of stomach acid back up into the esophagus, causing symptoms such as stomach aches and a burning sensation in the chest and throat. Treatment requires managing symptoms and avoiding alcohol consumption and specific foods that can trigger acid reflux, such as fried foods, citrus fruits, and spicy food. Over-the-counter medication, such as antacids, may help relieve symptoms. In more serious cases, surgery may be recommended.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) 

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a medical condition that may cause trouble with digestion and is often linked to stress and anxiety disorders. The cause of IBS isn't known, and many people are diagnosed based on symptoms. These symptoms can include a swollen stomach or bloating, diarrhea, stomach pain, and constipation. If your stomach hurts after eating, talk to your doctor about IBS. 

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) 

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) refers to conditions brought on by inflammation in the intestinal tract. The two conditions under the IBD umbrella are Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn's Disease. Ulcerative Colitis occurs in the large intestine only. It is categorized by stomach ulcers, such as peptic ulcers appearing on the intestinal and stomach lining because of an overactive immune system. A peptic ulcer can often be treated with prescription medications for the underlying cause.

Crohn's disease, on the other hand, may occur throughout the digestive system in the upper abdomen and small intestine. If you constantly feel upper abdominal pain, speak to a doctor about IBD.

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Ulcers 

Another common gastrointestinal issue is a stomach ulcer. Ulcers develop in the stomach or intestine and can make it uncomfortable to digest. These are often caused by stress, continued inflammation, or an unknown allergy. Though a stomach ulcer can be treated, it may worsen if unrecognized for an extended period. 

IBS, ulcers, and other gastrointestinal issues often require a person to change their diet. Spicy foods, caffeine, alcohol, and acidic foods may all irritate sensitive stomachs.

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Gallstones

Gallstones could also be the cause of stomach pain. Gallstones are hard pieces typically made of cholesterol or bilirubin that can develop in the gallbladder, block the bile duct, and cause intense pain in the abdomen. If large enough, gallstones could also cause intestinal blockage.

Mental health conditions

Mental health conditions may include symptoms related to the digestive system. Below are a few mental health conditions that could cause this. 

Eating disorders 

Eating disorders are mental health conditions related to food and eating. Some eating disorders may cause gastrointestinal distress. The brain and stomach are connected, and negative views about food may cause stomach pain after eating. Additionally, if food is restricted, purged, or binged, the stomach may react with pain or other distressing symptoms. 

People with eating disorders may have trouble disconnecting unproductive thought patterns around food from healthy ones. Receiving treatment from a physician and therapist simultaneously can be a way to reduce symptoms. 

Anxiety disorders

Anxiety often manifests in repetitive thought patterns and physiological symptoms like stomach cramping or nausea. Many individuals who experience an anxiety disorder may also have trouble sticking to a routine food schedule. 

Depression 

Depression may also cause discomfort after eating. Often, people with depression may not feel hunger signals or ignore them due to mental health symptoms. Not eating over extended periods could make it challenging to reintroduce foods and may cause stomach pain. 

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Stomach pain can be a symptom of emotional distress

Counseling

If you feel there are mental health connections to your stomach pain after eating, seeking the help of a therapist may be valuable. Even in cases where physical symptoms accompany mental health concerns, they can be valid symptoms that may require medical care. In these circumstances, speaking to a medical doctor and a therapist can be necessary. 

You might benefit from online therapy if you feel nervous about leaving home or struggle with stomach-related symptoms in public. Online therapy has also been proven beneficial in treating common mental health conditions that could cause stomach pain, such as anxiety. 

If you're managing a chronic diagnosis or experiencing anxiety regarding food, it may be beneficial to seek professional help. Online platforms like BetterHelp for adults have licensed therapists that may assist you with your food-related symptoms. 

Takeaway

Experiencing stomach pain after eating can be distressing and may make eating a healthy diet feel challenging. If you relate, consider contacting your primary care physician to determine a cause. If you determine together that the cause is related to mental health, you may also choose to reach out to a counselor for further support.

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