What Causes Stomach Cramps?
Do you experience abdominal pain after eating? Stomach cramps are very unpleasant and can be accompanied by pain and worry. Nearly everyone gets a stomachache at some point, and normally, it is nothing to be concerned about. However, there can be times when stomach cramps before or after you have eaten are so unbearable that you need to see your doctor. Learn what causes an upset stomach and how to prevent them with a few lifestyle changes.
Table of Contents
1. What Is the Most Common Cause of Stomach Cramps?
2. Is My Stomach Upset?
3. Conditions That Cause Stomach Cramps, Discomfort, and Pain
- Lactose intolerance
- OTC Drugs
- Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Exercising After Eating
4. Serious Causes of Abdominal Pain (Eating Related):
- Food poisoning
- Trapped Wind
- Sugar Alcohols
5. Serious Causes of Stomach Pain (Indirectly Eating Related):
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Stomach Peptic Ulcers
- Overactive and Underactive Thyroid
6. When Should You See the Doctor?
7. How to Relieve Your Stomachache
8. How to Have a Balanced Digestive System
9. Avoid These Foods to Prevent Stomach Cramps After Eating
10. How to Protect Yourself From Future Stomach Troubles
What Is the Most Common Cause of Stomach Cramps?
The most common cause of stomach cramps is—you guessed it—eating too much or too quickly. We've all been there, maybe at Thanksgiving or Christmas, when we get caught up in the festivities and forget how much food and drink we've consumed. This is normally nothing to be worried about.
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When you eat too fast and/or too much, the stomach has to work much harder than it usually does, which often causes bloating and cramping. You also end up missing out on a very important part of the digestive process: saliva mixing with the food as you chew.
Chewing food properly and for a long enough period of time induces saliva, which promotes good digestion. Saliva contains enzymes that play a vital role in breaking down starches and fats (which helps keep your teeth healthy), and it also acts as a lubricant for food, allowing for easier swallowing and abrasion protection for your mouth and throat lining.
Is My Stomach Upset?
Many types of stomach pain and discomfort exist, and it's likely that you've lived through quite a few of them in your lifetime.
What Are the Symptoms of an Upset Stomach?
- Acid reflux
- Gas or bloating
- Cramps in the abdomen
- A feeling of uncomfortable fullness
- A mild to severe pain in the upper abdomen
Conditions That Cause Stomach Cramps, Discomfort, and Pain
There are quite a few reasons your stomach may be experiencing discomfort or pain after you eat a meal. Learn what the common conditions are and how to treat them below.
- Food allergies/food intolerance (ex. lactose and gluten)
- Side effects of over-the-counter drugs
- Stress, anxiety, and depression
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Exercising immediately after eating
- Drinking cold drinks with hot food: This can often cause stomach cramping because they cause the stomach muscles to go into spasm.
1. Food Allergy/Intolerance
What is the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance?
What Is a Food Allergy?
When the human body mistakenly thinks a certain food is a harmful foreign invader, its immune system releases antibodies to fight the "bad" presence—this is what happens when you get food allergies. When your body tries to counter the food, its the immune response that can actually be the source of a variety of uncomfortable symptoms—among which can include stomach pain.
Common food allergies include the following:
- Bananas: They contain a protein, known as chitinase, that can be a catalyst for an allergic response in people with pollen-food allergy syndrome.
- Peanuts: They contain proteins similar to chitinase that can cause allergic responses. Some people can experience a reaction by eating, handling, or even inhaling food products with peanuts.
- Tree nuts
- Eggs: If you're allergic to eggs, prepare to potentially experience rashes, congestion, and vomiting in addition to stomach cramps after you eat them—They also have an allergenic protein. According to MayoClinic, this allergy is usually found in children and can be outgrown before adolescence.
How Is Food Intolerance Different From Allergies?
Food intolerance is often an inability to digest or process certain foods rather than an immune response to an allergen. Two common food intolerances involve gluten and milk.
- Gluten intolerance can cause stomach pain; in its most severe form, celiac disease, it is an actual allergy to the protein in gluten. Anything with wheat, barley, or rye can upset your stomach.
- Lactose intolerance is a shortage of the enzyme needed to process the sugar in milk. This means that any milk or dairy products can affect you. Fortunately, you can find many lactose-free products in the market.
What Is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is when your body has an immune response to gluten. If you have the disease and repeatedly consume gluten (increasing the frequency of exposure), it can cause damage to the small intestine's lining. As you can imagine, this will lead to an upset stomach and other potential complications.
Note: If you have a mild intolerance to gluten, you will also experience mild stomach pain. However, this is not the same thing as having Celiac disease. Instead of having your small intestine damaged, you'd simply be experiencing a physical reaction—whether gas or diarrhea.
How to Treat Stomach Pain From Allergies or Intolerances
If you have food allergies or intolerances and want to resolve stomach cramps, you'll need to address the source of the issue: your diet. Schedule an appointment with an allergist to get an accurate diagnosis of your allergy causes.
Once you've established your food intolerances, try to avoid that food as much as possible to prevent having stomach cramps and irritating your digestive system.
If you're not sure whether you have allergies or not to certain foods, keep a food diary to help you get closer to figuring it out.
- Write down what you eat for every meal, including snacks and drinks you include throughout the day.
- Jot down when your stomach hurts.
- Do this for at least a week or two to see if you can pinpoint what you consumed shortly before experiencing cramps or abdominal irritation.
2. Side Effects of Over-the-Counter Drugs
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain relief like aspirin, ibuprofen, codeine, and (in rare cases) paracetamol are ineffective at treating stomach pain. In fact, they can cause stomach swelling, cramping, gas, or even diarrhea.
A study looking at long-term aspirin use and the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding found that regular use is indeed connected to gastrointestinal bleeding. The risk seems more strongly related to the dose than the duration of aspirin use.
If you're experiencing stomach cramps, it's better to take over-the-counter medication such as antacids to help, especially if cutting out foods and drinks in your diet isn't helping the situation.
Diverticulitis is an inflammation or infection of small pouches, known as diverticula, that develops along the intestinal walls. The actual pouch formation is a less severe condition called diverticulosis. It is usually caused by a poor diet. People who develop this condition usually have diets lacking sufficient fiber, which adversely affects the way stools are formed. Diverticulitis can cause the stomach to swell or bloat, causing you pain.
- Fiber helps soften stool and increase its mass, which makes it easy to pass. A lack of fiber in your colon signals the beginning of unpleasant problems: you will produce smaller, harder food waste, causing strain when you go to the bathroom. When you strain, other complications can happen, such as hemorrhoids.
The treatment for diverticulitis can be as simple as increasing the amount of fiber in your diet. You may also need to consume bulk-forming sachets, but the downside is that they can cause further gas and bloat. You only need these agents if you are seriously constipated because of diverticulitis.
4. Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
Having stress, anxiety, or depression can cause abdominal complications. How? Your brain interacts with the rest of your body through the nervous system and can regulate digestion. In an issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, an article delved into the fact that in stressful situations, the brain triggers a "fight or flight" response that involves slowing down or stopping your digestion—all to focus attention on the "threat." Constant, even less severe stressors can negatively impact the digestive process, causing stomach pain and discomfort.
Unfortunately, this can lead to more stress, anxiety, and depression, thereby perpetuating an unhealthy cycle.
- One leads to the other: When your body is stressed, it releases the "stress hormone" cortisol, which can cause fat gain. This is your body's way of protecting itself. Conversely, anxiety and depression can (almost) shut down your appetite, causing rapid weight loss.
- However, one of the symptoms of both stress and anxiety is reduced blood supply to the stomach. Less blood to the stomach means poor digestion, which results in cramping and bloating.
The immediate cure for these stomach troubles is to eat smaller meals, consume them more slowly, and do your best to relax during meal times.
5. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
If you experience stomach discomfort after every meal in addition to constipation or diarrhea on different days, you could have an irritable bowel. It's a chronic condition that affects the large intestine.
Irritable bowel syndrome can cause you to experience the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Mucus in the stool
Thankfully, only a small percentage of people have severe symptoms of IBS. Most people can manage their symptoms by taking care of their diet, lifestyle, and stress levels. Those with symptoms that are more severe can treat it with medication and counseling.
If you suspect you might have irritable bowel syndrome, see your doctor for more advice and help. In the meantime, eat in moderation and avoid alcohol, coffee, wheat-based foods, and products that contain milk. It generally requires long-term management.
According to Mayo Clinic, you should consider seeing the doctor if you have the following:
- Weight loss
- Diarrhea at night
- Rectal bleeding
- Iron deficiency (anemia)
- Difficulty swallowing
- Persistent pain (not relieved by passing gas or a bowel movement)
When you are constipated, it means that you have not consumed enough fiber or water. The stool moves too slowly through the digestive tract and can't be eliminated from your body normally. Having this over a period of several weeks, with three or fewer bowel movements—known as chronic constipation—can cause cramps, abdominal swelling, and gas.
The quick fix is light exercise such as walking, which helps get your gut working again. Drink plenty of water and make sure that you eat enough fiber every day. This will help you to regain and maintain a healthy digestive system.
7. Exercising Immediately After Eating
Exercising right after eating confuses your body! This is something that you were probably told as a kid but probably ignored as an adult. I'm not pointing fingers here, as I'm guilty as well! Do you remember your parents saying, "Don't go swimming right after eating a meal when you're at the beach—Your stomach will cramp up, and you'll collapse or drown!" You might think it sounds a bit exaggerated, but it's actually not too far from the truth.
- Your body is very good at both eating and exercising. But not at the same time, nor one after the other.
Most of the day, your blood is flowing around your body, transporting vital nutrients to your internal organs, taking away bad or old cells to expel them as waste after filtering them through the kidneys and liver. When you eat, your digestive system requires a large amount of energy to do its job effectively. Your brain sends a message to your heart to start pumping more blood to your digestive system at an incredible rate to give it the energy it requires for you to digest your food.
- This is why you might feel very tired after eating a big meal, particularly if that meal is high in starchy foods such as pasta, rice, or potatoes. Your gut has used so much energy that it makes the rest of your body feel lethargic and tired.
When you exercise, the opposite shift in blood happens. Your brain fires neurotransmitters around your body, sending blood and oxygen to your muscular system to allow your muscles to contract and relax properly.
So, if you've just eaten and started exercising (even walking briskly), your system is confused because your digestive system is trying to retain blood and oxygen, but your muscles are trying to divert these resources away from your gut and into muscle tissue. The end result is stomach aches, cramps, and gastrointestinal stress.
You can get indigestion after eating or drinking. Besides having a stomachache, you might also feel bloated or sick. Consuming rich or fatty foods, sugary drinks, caffeine, or alcohol can make indigestion worse.
What Are the Symptoms of Indigestion?
- Feeling full early on in the meal. Even though you haven't eaten a lot of the meal, you may already feel so full you can't finish your meal.
- Feeling uncomfortably full after eating a meal.
- Experiencing discomfort, bloating, or a burning sensation in the upper abdomen.
9. Food Poisoning
Food poisoning is also known as foodborne illness. You can get it by consuming food contaminated with infectious organisms such as bacteria, viruses, or parasites— their toxins are the most common cause.
What Are the Symptoms of Food Poisoning?
Most food poisoning involves one or more of the following signs:
- Abdominal pain and cramps
Know that if you have food poisoning, it generally lasts from a few hours to several days.
No, being pregnant doesn't automatically mean that you'll have abdominal pain. However, it is one of many small complications that can happen after you eat. Why?
- During pregnancy, your digestive process slows down, and your body also increases its production of stomach acid. This combination can lead to wind, bloating, and constipation—all of which contribute to stomach cramping.
- Your stomach has less space to expand as you get further into your pregnancy and the fetus grows.
- Acid reflux can happen when the esophageal sphincter loosens and allows excess acid to enter the esophagus.
Heartburn, known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), is also called acid reflux. When stomach acid goes into the esophagus (the food pipe), it creates a burning sensation in the chest, throat, and potentially the stomach.
Foods and Drinks That Can Trigger Heartburn:
- Spicy food
- Tomato and tomato-based products
- Fatty/ fried foods
- Carbonated beverages
- Coffee or other caffeinated beverages
- Large or fatty meals
Being overweight or pregnant also can increase your risk of experiencing heartburn. That's why losing weight and managing your food portions can help keep heartburn at bay.
What Is GERD?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a digestive condition where stomach acid comes up into your esophagus. The acid reflux then irritates and can potentially damage the esophagus lining. Heartburn and stomach pain can occur. You can take over-the-counter antacids to help the symptoms.
12. Trapped Wind
Having wind trapped in the digestive tract can cause discomfort. You may feel stretching sensations or a sharp pain in your abdomen.
Foods That Tend to Produce Gas
- Whole grains
If gas or wind bothers you, you can try eating less of these foods. Look into other foods that make you feel gassy or bloated so you can be aware of what to eat in moderation or avoid. For instance, avoid things that encourage you to chew with your mouth open such as gum or sweets. Swallowing air can also lead to wind.
13. Sugar Alcohols
Sugar alcohols are artificial sweeteners used in many sugar-free gums and candies. They don't contain sugar or alcohol but are a form of carbohydrate that isn't easily digested. When sugar alcohols reach the intestinal tract and come in contact with the bacteria that ferment them, gas is released that leads to bloating, cramps, and discomfort.
Some people discovered that sugar alcohols cause them digestive distress—The FDA warns that consuming an excessive quantity of sorbitol can cause a laxative effect.
What Are Serious Causes of Abdominal Pain (Related to Eating)?
If mild pain lasts a long time or you are unsure about what is causing it, the best advice is always to consult your doctor. While most stomach cramps are usually caused by temporary circumstances, another cause of these "non-chronic" pains could be food poisoning which, left untreated, could escalate.
Also, people who have appendicitis often feel mild pains first in their lower abdomen, as do people with cancer of the colon. If you are unhappy with these pains and cramps because they are not going away, make an appointment with your doctor to get your body examined and issues diagnosed.
The following are some serious causes of abdominal pain that should be treated by a doctor.
1. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
This is caused by serious blockage or scarring of the colon wall. These pains are chronic and require immediate medical attention. However, most cases of IBD show intermittent symptoms—they flare up and then die down. This makes diagnosis tricky for your doctor. Another symptom is rectal bleeding. On an important note, people with IBD seem to be more likely to get colon cancer. Therefore, if you're getting cramping, intermittent pains, diarrhea, and bleeding from your back passage, it is time to make an urgent appointment with your physician.
2. Stomach Peptic Ulcers
These are sores that develop on the stomach lining. They are also serious and common causes of abdominal discomfort, pain, and cramping. Pains are usually concentrated in the middle or upper stomach area. Cramping pains will occur during or after eating, and you could wake in the middle of the night because of stomach pain. Ulcers are caused by bacterial infections and anti-inflammatory drugs. Common treatments are antibiotics and anti-suppressant drugs.
3. Overactive and Underactive Thyroid
The thyroid gland is in charge of several roles in the body and located in the neck. If it doesn't function, the results can be felt in your digestive system.
- An overactive thyroid, a condition known as hyperthyroidism, increases movement within the gut, causing cramps and diarrhea.
- An underactive thyroid, a condition known as hypothyroidism, slows down the action of the colon, causing constipation, pain, and gas. It can also cause dramatic weight gain.
When Should You See the Doctor?
If you show or experience a combination of the following signs or symptoms, seek medical attention soon.
- Frequent vomiting episodes
- An inability to keep liquids down after drinking
- Bloody vomit
- Bloody stool
- Diarrhea (for more than three days)
- Extreme pain
- Severe abdominal cramping
- An oral temperature higher than 100.4°F
- Dehydration (signs or symptoms: excessive thirst, dry mouth, little or no urination, severe weakness, dizziness, lightheadedness)
- Neurological symptoms (blurry vision, muscle weakness, and arm tingling)
How to Relieve Your Stomachache
If you want to try relieving your stomach cramps, try a few of these options:
- Medication: Severe stomach pain may require taking over-the-counter and prescribed medications. Gallstones may require prescription medication. Other painful stomach issues may be resolved with anti-diarrheal drugs, anticholinergic drugs, or fiber supplements. Ask your doctor if you have any questions.
- Gluten-Free Diet: Symptoms may be alleviated by following a celiac disease diet. Try a diet of fresh fruit, vegetables, lean meats, quinoa, cornmeal, and corn products.
- Stay Hydrated and Rest: Make sure to rest and take in plenty of fluids. This allows your body to flush out toxins in the gut. If you ate too much during a meal, wait at least thirty minutes to drink water.
- Maintain a High-Fiber Diet: Doing so is good for your health and can help prevent conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.
- Healthy Eating: Avoid greasy and high-fat foods. Don't eat too much at mealtime—portion out smaller quantities of food and try to plan meals ahead of time to prevent fast food temptation.
- Use a Warm Compress: Use a warm compress to relax any tight muscles that may be causing the abdominal pains after you eat a meal. You can apply a hot water bottle or heating pad covered with a towel or thin cloth to the cramped area for 20 minutes.
- Massage Your Pains: Relieve your stomach pains with a gentle massage with your fingers. It may help promote proper digestion and ease your bowel movements. However, stop massaging if the pain worsens.
How to Have a Balanced Digestive System
The secret to a balanced digestive system with no stomach discomfort, pains, or cramping is simple: Drink a lot of water and eat a nutritious diet high in fiber and good fats (omega-3 fatty acids) but low in saturated fats. If you don't eat enough fiber or drink enough water, your digestive system cannot function normally.
To avoid discomfort, make sure you eat your daily requirement of fruits and vegetables—at least five a day.
- Drink lots of water.
- Avoid eating large meals. When you are hungry, start with bland, smaller meals—try not to start with spicy dishes.
- Try taking an over-the-counter antacid.
- Place a hot compress over the stomach area.
- Massage your stomach with gentle pressure.
- Avoid greasy, fatty, processed foods.
- Drink herbal tea.
- Eat yogurt regularly.
- Don’t drink alcohol.
- Don’t smoke.
Try Avoiding These Foods If They Cause Stomach Cramps After Eating
- Dairy: Excessive amounts of lactose can cause abdominal pain, cramps, and bloating.
- Soda: The combination of sugar and carbonation can end up making you feel worse.
- Sugar: This is not easily digested by the body, which can cause your stomach to be uncomfortable.
- Spicy Foods: Capsaicin, a component found in peppers, can irritate the stomach lining, resulting in pain for people with sensitive stomachs.
- Nightshades: Nightshade vegetables—such as tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants—can cause stomach problems.
- Saturated Fats: Consuming too much saturated fat can cause inflammation.
- Coffee: Highly acidic, coffee can cause stomach lining irritation and stomach muscle cramping.
How to Protect Yourself From Future Stomach Troubles
- Eating a nutritious diet, as discussed above, can both prevent and treat stomach upsets.
- Regularly clean the kitchen and eating area surfaces with a disinfectant spray. This is very important to avoid infections and disease.
- Try natural remedies to heal upset stomachs or help avert future stomach problems. Peppermint oil, caraway, ginger, bananas, cinnamon, and—though it sounds strange—baking soda and charcoal all have been proven to soothe unhappy stomachs. Probiotics are also natural therapies.
- Your body may also benefit from a detoxification, which could reduce abdominal upset. Some people find detoxes reenergizing, thereby adding the benefit of reduced anxiety, tension, and fatigue.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2011 Andy
Patience C. on September 04, 2014:
I was looking for possible reasons why I was getting "stomach cramps after eating". I debated whether or not to seek medical attention but after reviewing this info, I've decided I will. Thank U!
Terra Simpson on March 28, 2014:
For me exercise works. Of course all of my group x teachers are women.
One time my stomach was hurting so bad that I could not even complete a bunch of squats and eventually put my bar down and bend forward and my poor teacher had no clue what to do. She probably knew something was going on involving my stomach. Tonight I came so close to going for Mydole witch I had in my gym bag. My teacher Heather would look at me and I just tried to smile.