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Why do I feel sick and nauseous after eating?

"Why do I feel sick after I eat?" is often heard by dietitians specializing in eating disorders. In this situation, "sick" can mean many things, but it usually 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 very 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. 

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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January 18, 2024
Every time I eat I feel sick.
In this article

Why do I feel nauseous after I eat?

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

Nausea and binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder is characterized by recurrent episodes of consuming a large quantity of food quickly, accompanied by a feeling of loss of control and 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. 

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

Anorexia and nausea

In anorexia nervosa (AN), avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, or other restrictive eating disorders, a medical issue known as gastroparesis can occur.11 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.

As a result, the food sits in the stomach for longer periods, which can cause nausea during or after eating and the feeling of getting full more quickly than usual.

Bulimia and nausea

With bulimia nervosa (BN), the reason nausea may occur is similar to why it happens in binge eating disorder. Those with bulimia often cycle through binging and purging, although non-purging bulimia also exists. 

Repeated overeating and purging can lead to gastrointestinal problems that result in nausea and other intestinal distress.10

woman at dinner table

10 other causes of nausea

Feeling nauseous after eating can be an issue but nausea itself is a "non-specific symptom," meaning it occurs in many different conditions. Therefore, doctors cannot diagnose any disease knowing only that someone has nausea. 

Some of the different conditions connected with nausea include the following.

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 a slowed digestive system. 

Foodborne illness

Foodborne illness (food poisoning) commonly has symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.12 If you've eaten contaminated food with bacteria or viruses, the bacteria itself or the toxins produced by the bacteria or viruses may cause symptoms of nausea. Foodborne illnesses will also cause diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, dehydration, and fever. Parasites also may cause foodborne illness and nausea.

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Food allergies and food intolerances

It's common for food sensitivities and allergies to cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. This is due to the histamine that is produced in the body. Excess histamine levels when you have a food allergy to certain foods trigger nausea, diarrhea, heart palpitations, and other symptoms.7

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Acid reflux

Acid reflux is when stomach acid flows up into the esophagus.13 This can cause various symptoms, including a burning sensation, burping, coughing, sore throat, and nausea. The cause of acid reflux varies, but common culprits include spicy foods, pregnancy, stress, and anxiety.14

Irritable bowel syndrome

Nausea and stomach pain are commonly reported in those with irritable bowel syndrome. Those with IBS may also have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), migraine headaches, and 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, fever, and abdominal pain.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 that it activates the vagus nerve.9 This causes a nerve response that includes nausea, 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

two woman talking

What to do when you have nausea after eating

If you experience nausea occasionally, it is not necessarily a sign of a serious health problem or eating disorder. However, if you say, "why do I feel sick every time I eat?" or regularly experience severe nausea or feel nauseous when eating food, 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 essential 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. 

In some cases, where the nausea is caused by stomach flu, sickness, or pregnancy, eating bland foods may help. Bland foods can also help if you're having pregnancy nausea.

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.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. What to do when your medication causes nausea. (2019). Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. 
  2. Chang, L. (2013). Nausea and IBS. Digestive Health Matters, 17(1). 
  3. Chronic Pancreatitis. (n.d.). Cedars Sinai. 
  4. Diabetes and Digestion. (2022). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
  5. Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogle,r G., Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus nerve as a modulator of the brain-gut axis in psychiatric and inflammatory disorders. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9.
  6. Table 1, DSM-IV and DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for binge-eating disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved June 10, 2022, from 
  7. Anthony, K. (2019, March 8). Histamine intolerance: Causes, symptoms, and diagnosis. Healthline. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from 
  8. Gallbladder disease. Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2022, February 15). Retrieved June 10, 2022.
  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 
  10. Hunnicutt, C. (n.d.). It's Not Just Purging: Lesser-Known Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa. Oliver-Pyatt Centers. Retrieved March 2, 2023.
  11. Eating Disorders And GI Problems: Understanding The Connections. (2020). GI Alliance. Retrieved March 2, 2023.
  12. Shew, A. (2022). Are You Sure It Wasn't Food Poisoning? U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved March 2, 2023.
  13. Acid Reflux (GER & GERD) in Adults. (n.d.). National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
  14. Heartburn and Acid Reflux. (2020). NHS.

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