Stomach Cramps After Eating

Updated on September 30, 2014

What Causes Stomach Cramps?

What causes stomach aches or cramps?
What causes stomach aches or cramps?

Stomach cramps are very unpleasant and can come with a side of pain and worry. Nearly everyone gets a stomach ache at some point, and normally it is nothing to be concerned about. But there can be times when stomach cramps before or after you have eaten are so unbearable that you need to see your doctor.

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 of the occasion and forget how much food (and drink) we've had. This is normally nothing to be worried about.

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. And you miss out on a very important part of the digestive process when you eat too quickly: saliva mixing with food when you chew.

Chewing food properly and long enough to induce saliva promotes good digestion. Saliva contains enzymes that play a vital role breaking down starches and fats (which helps keep your teeth healthy), and it also acts as a lubricant to food, allowing easier swallowing and protection from abrasion for the lining of your mouth and throat.

Below is a quick list of common causes of stomach cramps as well as more serious causes that require medical treatment. After the quick list, I go more into detail about all food-related causes and easy treatments.

Common causes of stomach cramps include:

  • Lactose intolerance
  • Over-eating and eating too quickly
  • Side effects of medicines such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Diverticulitis
  • Gluten intolerance
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Constipation
  • Exercising too quickly after eating
  • Drinking cold drinks with food

Serious causes of abdominal pain (related to eating) are:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Food poisoning
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Overactive and underactive thyroid

Serious causes of stomach pain (not directly related to eating) include:

  • Appendicitis
  • Cancer
  • Parasitic infections
  • Pending heart attack

Common Conditions That Cause Stomach Cramps, Discomfort, and Pain

Some common causes of stomach pains lie in the foods we eat. Intolerance of lactose or gluten, constipation, and drinking cold beverages with hot foods can all lead to abdominal pain.
Some common causes of stomach pains lie in the foods we eat. Intolerance of lactose or gluten, constipation, and drinking cold beverages with hot foods can all lead to abdominal pain.

Lactose Intolerance—Dairy products like milk, cheese, butter, and chocolate contain a sugar (lactose) which some people cannot digest.

The treatment for lactose intolerance is to avoid all milk products.

Side effects to over-the-counter drugs—Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain relief drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin, ibuprofen, codeine, and even paracetamol (in rare cases) are ineffective at treating stomach pain; in fact, they can cause stomach swelling, cramping, gas, and even diarrhea.

Diverticulitis—Diverticulitis is an inflammation that forms in the colon, usually because of poor diet. People who develop this condition usually have diets lacking sufficient fiber, which adversely affects the way stools are formed. Fiber helps soften stool and increase their mass, which makes them 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. In addition, you may need to consume bulk-forming sachets, but the down-side of these is that they can cause further gas and bloating. You would only normally need these agents if you are seriously constipated because of diverticulitis.

Gluten intolerance—This condition means that a person is allergic to wheat, barley, or even rye. When some people eat gluten, it damages the small intestine, affecting its ability to absorb nutrients. When symptoms become severe, it is called celiac disease.

Stress, anxiety, and depression—These conditions can cause abdominal complications, which can lead to more stress, anxiety, and depression in an unhealthy cycle.

One leads to the other: when your body is stressed, your body releases the 'stress hormone' cortisol, which can cause fat gain. This is the 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, resulting in cramping and bloating. The immediate cure for these stomach troubles is to eat smaller meals more slowly and do your best to relax during meal times.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)—If your stomach discomfort is persistent after every meal, and sometimes you are seriously constipated, while at other times you get diarrhea, then you could have an irritable bowel. If you suspect this, go see your doctor for further advice and help. In the meantime, eat in moderation and avoid alcohol, coffee, wheat-based foods, and products that contain milk.

Constipation—When you are constipated, it means that you have not consumed enough fiber or water. Your bowel becomes saturated with waste to the point where it can barely move, causing cramps, abdominal swelling, and gas. The quick fix is light exercise such as walking, which helps to 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.

Exercising immediately after eating—Exercising immediately after eating confuses your body! This is something that you were probably told as a kid, but have ignored as an adult. I'm not pointing fingers here; I'm guilty too, and on more than one occasion. "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!" Sounds a bit exaggerated, you might think, 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 freely around your body, transporting vital nutrients to your internal organs and taking away bad or old cells, expelling them as waste after filtering them through the kidneys and liver. Although it may not feel like it, when you eat, your digestive system requires a large amount of energy to do its job effectively. So, 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.

But 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 work (contract and relax) properly.

So, if you've just eaten and start 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.

Drinking cold drinks with hot food—This can often cause stomach cramping, because they cause the stomach muscles to go into spasm.

What Are Serious Causes of Abdominal Pain (Related to Eating)?

An ulcer is one cause of abdominal pain that requires medical attention.
An ulcer is one cause of abdominal pain that requires medical attention.

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 deadly diseases like appendicitis, often feel mild pains first in their lower abdomen, as do people with cancer of the colon. So if you are unhappy with these pains and cramps because they are just not going away, make an appointment with your doctor, or visit the emergency room.

The following are some serious causes of abdominal pain that should be treated by a doctor.

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, then die down (as explained in this NHS article). This makes diagnosis a tricky one for your doctor. Other symptoms are 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.

Stomach ulcers—These 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 (NSAIDs). Common treatments are antibiotics and anti-suppressant drugs.

Overactive and underactive thyroid—The thyroid gland is in charge of several roles in the body. It is located in the neck, but if it is not functioning, 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.

Treatment: The Secret to a Balanced Digestive System

Balance your digestive system by eating at least five fruits and vegetables daily.
Balance your digestive system by eating at least five fruits and vegetables daily.

The secret to a balanced digestive system with no stomach discomfort, pains, or cramping is to 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 (in fact, I think somebody just increased this to seven a day, so I'm sure you can do at least five).

Tips for Health and Hygiene That Will Protect You and Your Family from Stomach Troubles

Eating a nutritious diet, as discussed above, can both prevent and treat stomach upsets. Also, don't forget about personal and kitchen hygiene. Regularly clean the kitchen and eating area surfaces with a disinfectant spray. This is very important to avoid infections and disease.

You could also 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 upset stomachs. Probiotics such as those in yogurt or in Protease, which I use to keep my otherwise chaotic gut in a normal functioning state, 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 reducing anxiety, tension, and fatigue.

And Lastly, How to Prevent Gas or Flatulence

Having problems with flatulence? Gas is caused by many of the same problems that cause upset stomach. Also try to decrease the amount of air you swallow (because all air that goes in must come out) by eating and drinking slowly and unhurriedly. Avoid fizzy drinks, chewing gum, and smoking.

© 2011 Andy


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      Patience C. 3 years ago

      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!

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      Terra Simpson 4 years ago

      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.