Medically Approved

5 reasons your stomach is upset

5 minute read
Woman preparing to eat a banana

Having a stomachache is a drag. But luckily, the symptoms are usually easy to treat. Here are common culprits that cause pain and how to feel better fast.

Lauren Bedosky

By Lauren Bedosky

There’s nothing fun about that painful, queasy, crampy feeling you get when your stomach is acting up. It’s unpleasant, especially if you end up vomiting or dealing with diarrhea. But if you know the cause of your stomach upset, you can take steps to fix it and maybe even prevent it from happening again.

Here are 5 common culprits that cause stomachaches — and doctor-approved home remedies that can offer fast relief.

Common culprit #1: Stomach flu

The stomach flu (also known as viral gastroenteritis) is an infection in your intestines. It can spread through contaminated food and water. Stomach flu is often caused by a type of virus called a norovirus, or another type called a rotavirus.

You can also catch stomach viruses by coming in close contact with an infected person or sharing utensils or food. You can even pick it up by touching a surface (such as a doorknob or a toy) that contains the virus and then touching your mouth. So if your child brings home a stomach flu from day care or school, you and your spouse might get it, too.

Symptoms: Watery diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea or vomiting, and fever.

Shop for all your digestion and nausea remedies on the Optum Store and have products shipped directly to your front door.

Common culprit #2: Motion sickness

That queasy feeling in your stomach that you get when you’re riding in a car, boat or an amusement park ride is motion sickness. “Our brains receive information from the parts of our body that sense movement, like our inner ears and eyes,” says Brynna Connor, MD. She’s a family medicine doctor in Austin, Texas. When your brain can’t make sense of that information — it doesn’t know whether you’re still or moving — you can feel sick.

Symptoms: The primary sign is a wave of nausea, which often comes on suddenly. You might also experience cold sweats, dizziness, headache and rapid breathing.

Common culprit #3: Overeating or eating too quickly

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “My eyes were bigger than my stomach.” That’s a polite way of saying you chowed down too much at dinner. Overeating or eating quickly is a recipe for a stomachache.

Overeating causes your stomach to stretch to adjust to the large amount of food. The expanded stomach then pushes against other organs and makes you feel uncomfortable. Your stomach may also produce gas.

Symptoms: An uncomfortable full feeling, plus gas and burping. “When you eat very fast, your digestive system has to work just as fast to keep up,” Dr. Connor says. You might feel the need to unbutton your pants and lie down until that overfull feeling passes. Or your digestive system may try to remedy the situation by getting the food out as quickly as possible, either through vomiting or diarrhea.

Common culprit #4: Alcohol

Drinking alcohol puts a heavy load on your digestive system — particularly your liver, the organ that regulates blood sugar, detoxifies the blood and produces bile. “Alcohol is not only a toxin to our body, but it also acts as sugar in our bloodstream,” Dr. Connor says.

Alcohol can also cause your stomach to produce more acid, which can irritate your stomach lining. This is called acid indigestion.

If you’re sensitive to the effects of alcohol or drink too much in a short period of time, you may feel the effects in your stomach. “The digestive system responds by giving you an upset stomach in the hopes of expelling the substance causing the issue,” Dr. Connor says.

Symptoms: Queasiness, uncomfortable pressure and possibly vomiting.

Common culprit #5: Overdoing exercise

Long, intense workouts can give you a stomachache. And it all comes down to blood flow: “When someone exercises, blood flow increases to the muscles and skin,” Dr. Connor says. If you exercise too intensely, there may be so much blood directed to the muscles and skin that there isn’t enough to support your digestive system.

Symptoms: Nausea, cramping, vomiting or diarrhea.

The best home remedies for an upset stomach

You don’t have to suffer through an upset stomach. Try one of these remedies for quick relief.

Antidiarrheal medications. Over-the-counter (OTC) antidiarrheals can help you feel better if you have diarrhea. Some can also be used to treat an upset stomach.

Antidiarrheals include:

Loperamide works by slowing digestion, which allows your body to absorb more fluid. This helps your stool form so that you have less diarrhea.

Bismuth subsalicylate balances the fluid in your intestines, reduces inflammation and prevents diarrhea-causing bacteria and viruses from growing in your digestive tract. It can both help reduce diarrhea and treat your upset stomach.

(You can buy OTC antidiarrheals and antacids at the Optum Store.)

Antacids. OTC antacids (brand names Tums®, Alka-Seltzer®) help balance the acid in your stomach that causes indigestion (discomfort in your upper belly). They may help relieve the gurgling, gassy, bloated feeling you get after eating or drinking, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Ginger. This is a popular all-natural remedy for nausea. According to a 2016 research paper in Integrative Medicine Insights, ginger works by speeding up digestion. This way, foods won’t sit in your stomach and cause discomfort.

To tame nausea, try drinking a cup of ginger tea or sucking on some ginger candy. (But skip the ginger ale: Many ginger ales are artificially flavored and don’t contain real ginger, according to the Cleveland Clinic.)

Tip: If you tend to get motion sickness, stash some ginger candies in your backpack, purse or car. That way you’ll have them on hand if you start to feel queasy.

The best foods to eat when your stomach hurts

“An upset stomach is usually an irritated stomach,” says Rajnish Jaiswal, MD. He’s associate chief of emergency medicine at NYC Health + Hospitals/Metropolitan. For that reason, it’s best to eat foods that reduce this irritation, he says.

The best foods for an upset stomach are those included in the BRAT diet:

  • Bananas
  • Rice
  • Applesauce
  • Toast

Because the foods in the BRAT diet are bland, low-fiber and starchy, they won’t irritate your stomach. The foods also help replace any nutrients you may have lost if you vomited or had diarrhea.

Feel free to add other bland foods to the BRAT diet. Some easy-to-digest options include:

  • Saltine crackers
  • Plain potatoes
  • Clear soup broths

It’s just as important to avoid irritating foods while you recover, Dr. Jaiswal says. He recommends steering clear of:

  • Caffeine
  • Chocolate
  • Spicy foods
  • High-fat foods
  • Carbonated beverages

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Additional sources
Natural ways to prevent motion sickness: Cleveland Clinic. “Motion Sickness.”
Physical effects of overeating: MD Anderson Cancer Center. “What happens when you overeat?”
Antacids: Johns Hopkins Medicine (n.d.): “Indigestion.”
How ginger combats nausea: Integrative Medicine Insights (2016). “The Effectiveness of Ginger in the Prevention of Nausea and Vomiting during Pregnancy and Chemotherapy.”
Ginger ale: Cleveland Clinic (2019). “Ginger Ale and Saltine Crackers? 5 Ways to Ease Stomach Pain and Nausea”
The BRAT diet: “BRAT diet: Recovering from an upset stomach.”