Causes of mealtime sickness

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“Every time I eat I feel sick” is something that is heard often by dietitians specializing in eating disorders. In this situation, “sick” can mean many things, but it often refers to a feeling of nausea. 

Nausea can be extremely unpleasant. Especially for people struggling to overcome disordered eating behaviors, nausea during or after eating can be extremely distressing and uncomfortable. It can also affect many other areas of your life, including your ability to focus on tasks and interact with other people socially.“Every time I eat I feel sick” is something that is heard often by dietitians specializing in eating disorders. Read this article to learn what causes nausea.

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Why do I feel nauseous every time I eat?

Nausea can be a symptom associated with several different types of eating disorder behaviors. 

Binge eating disorder is characterized by recurrent episodes of consuming a large quantity of food in a short period of time, accompanied by a feeling of loss of control and resulting in significant distress. (6) Some, though not all, people with binge eating disorder or who engage in binging behaviors experience a cycle of restricting and binging. Here is an example of what this cycle can look like: 

  1. Something happens and it triggers a binge. This could be something that is difficult to deal with emotionally or something that happens physiologically in the body, such as low blood sugar from not eating for a while. 
  2. Right after the binge, there may be distressing feelings of shame and guilt. These feelings can be so overwhelming that there is a desperate need to avoid triggering them again.
  3. A commitment is made to stop binging. 
  4. The vow may add a lot of pressure and create the urge to restrict food to “compensate” for the binge. 
  5. After a period of restriction, another emotional or physiological trigger can result in another binge, regardless of previous intentions not to binge again. 

In the binge-restrict cycle, nausea can occur during the binge, after the binge, and even during meals which are not binges.

In anorexia nervosa (AN), avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, or other restrictive eating disorders, a medical issue known as gastroparesis can occur. Because digestion takes energy, when the body is experiencing malnutrition and does not have adequate energy, the rate of digestion may slow down and the stomach will stop emptying its food at its normal pace. The food sits in the stomach for longer time periods and this can cause nausea during or after eating, as well as the feeling of getting full more quickly than usual.

11 other causes of nausea

Nausea is what is called a “non-specific symptom”, meaning that it occurs in many different conditions. Doctors cannot diagnose any disease knowing only that someone has nausea. 

Some of the different conditions connected with nausea include:

Medications

Nausea is one of the most common side effects of medication. (1) The medications that are most likely to cause this side effect include:

  • Antibiotics, especially erythromycin
  • Aspirin
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve)
  • blood pressure drugs, such as calcium-channel blocker nifedipine (Nifedical, Procardia)

Eating past fullness

Eating past fullness can create an experience of nausea in people with and without eating disorders. As previously discussed, people with eating disorders may be experiencing gastroparesis which may cause them to feel extremely full and/or nauseous after eating even relatively small quantities of food due to slowed digestion. 

Foodborne illness

Foodborne illness commonly has symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. If caused by bacteria or viruses, the bacteria itself or the toxins produced by the bacteria or viruses may cause symptoms of nausea. Foodborne illness also will cause diarrhea, vomiting, cramps in the abdomen, dehydration, and fever. Parasites also may cause foodborne illness and nausea. 

Food allergies and food intolerances

It’s common that food allergies cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. This is due to the histamine that is produced in the body. The excess levels of histamine trigger nausea, diarrhea, heart palpitations, and other symptoms. (7) 

Acid reflux

Acid reflux is when the stomach acids move up into the esophagus. This can cause a variety of symptoms, including a burning sensation, burping, coughing, sore throat, and nausea. 

Irritable bowel syndrome

Nausea is commonly reported in those with irritable bowel syndrome. Those who have IBS may also have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and migraine headaches as well as low levels of stomach acid, and any of these may cause nausea. (2)

Gallbladder disease

Nausea and vomiting are common when gallbladder disease is present. (8) That’s because bile gets trapped when the pathway from the gallbladder is blocked. The resultant blockage can irritate the gallbladder. 

Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)

The pancreas produces enzymes that digest food. But if the pancreas is inflamed, this can cause nausea, along with vomiting and fever. (3) 

Diabetes

The high blood sugar in diabetes sometimes leads to nausea because the ability to digest food is not functional. This can trigger gastroparesis. (4) 

Stress and anxiety

The reason why stress triggers nausea is because it activates the vagus nerve. (9) This causes a response on the nerve that includes not only nausea but also dizziness, sweating, and ringing of the ears. 

Anxiety also affects the vagus nerve, especially when the nerve has something called low vagal tone. That’s why vagus nerve stimulation is now used as a therapeutic option in anxiety disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which has often been resistant to treatment with medication. (5)

What should you do when you have nausea?

If you experience nausea occasionally, it is not necessarily a sign of a serious health problem or eating disorder. However, if you regularly experience severe nausea or feel nauseous every time you eat, it is a good idea to visit a doctor to figure out the root cause and get help to treat this debilitating symptom. If you suspect you may have an eating disorder, it is important to share this information with the doctor diagnosing your nausea so that they will be better able to identify what is causing it and how to get relief.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. What to do when your medication causes nausea. July 31, 2019. Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/what-to-do-when-your-medication-causes-nausea 
  2. Nausea and IBS. Aboutibs.org/signs-and-symptoms/recognizing-symptoms/nausea-and-ibs/
  3. Chronic Pancreatitis. Cedars Sinai. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/c/chronic-pancreatitis.html
  4. Diabetes and Digestion. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/library/features/diabetes-digestion.html
  5. Breit S, Kupferberg A, Rogler G, Hasler G. Vagus nerve as a modulator of the brain-gut axis in psychiatric and inflammatory disorders. Front Psychiatry, 13 Mar 2018. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044/full
  6. Table 1, DSM-IV and DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for binge-eating disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved June 10, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK338301/table/introduction.t1/ 
  7. Anthony, K. (2019, March 8). Histamine intolerance: Causes, symptoms, and diagnosis. Healthline. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/health/histamine-intolerance 
  8. Gallbladder disease. Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2022, February 15). Retrieved June 10, 2022, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/gallbladder-disease# 
  9. Barbara Bolen, P. D. (2020, January 21). The reflex that can make you faint out of the blue. Verywell Health. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from https://www.verywellhealth.com/vasovagal-reflex-1945072

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