Meaning of a Full Stomach
What does a full stomach mean?
Full stomach is a common term that most of us use to describe the distention of the stomach usually after eating a meal. The term is not entirely inaccurate although it may sound crude at times. When we eat, the stomach fills and its wall stretches. This is one of the reasons we feel satisfied and the hunger pangs subside. There are other signals that abate hunger as well so a stretched stomach is not always necessary. Therefore one can eat a small meal at times and feel satisfied without the stomach is feeling full.
The term full stomach is also commonly used to mean that we have already eaten, irrespective of whether it was a large or small meal. A person may not have the full stomach feeling but since they have just eaten, they may still use this term. Irrespective of the manner in which it is used, stretching of the stomach wall, easing of the hunger pangs and feeling satisfied after eating a meal are all normal sensations that we encounter everyday in life.
However, there are instances where we experience that full stomach feeling which is quite uncharacteristic like after eating only a few bites. This is known as is known as early satiety (easy satiety) or postprandial fullness. The feeling may even occur and persist despite not eating. This is known as bloating (bloated sensation). It can be an important symptom of some underlying problem, usually of the stomach and small intestine.
Reasons for a Full Stomach Feeling
Why does the stomach feel full after eating?
In order to understand the reasons behind a full stomach feeling, it is important to be familiar with certain related terms. Hunger is the desire to eat and hunger pangs are strong prolonged stomach contractions associated with an urgent need to eat. Appetite is the degree to which a person needs to eat in order to feel satisfied. There are different centers in the brain that determine hunger and satiety. When the hunger center is active, a person feels the need to eat. Once the appropriate taste or quantity of food is met, the satiety center is stimulated and the activity in the hunger center diminishes.
The satiety center is the reason a person feels satisfied after eating. There are several factors that will stimulate the satiety center and allow for hunger to subside. This includes :
- Degree of distention of the stomach wall.
- Blood glucose level.
- Certain tastes which is a minor factor.
In other words, when the stomach is sufficiently stretched and the blood glucose levels return to a normal range, a person should feel satisfied. Sometimes cravings for certain foods may determine the level of satiety. There are also other factors that affect long and short term appetite control. Feeling of the stomach fullness is largely determined by the degree of stomach wall stretching more than other factors like blood glucose levels and tastes. Overeating and carbonated beverages are two reasons why a person may feel stomach fullness as being more intense than usual. These are normal occurrences.
Causes of Full Stomach Feeling
What causes the stomach to feel full?
Although it has been determined that the full stomach feeling is normal after a meal and sometimes stronger than normal with overeating and drinking carbonated beverages, there are times when this sensation can be considered abnormal. It may occur even without eating. It may arise after having a few small bites which would not normally satisfy a person. Sometimes a full stomach feeling is one of many symptoms that occur in certain disease. In these cases it may be accompanied by symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain or vomiting.
The more likely causes of full stomach feeling includes :
- Peptic ulcer where an open sore develops in the stomach, duodenum (first part of the small intestine) and sometimes lower esophagus. It is more likely to arise after severe gastritis often associated with the use of certain drugs like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
- Non-ulcer dyspepsia is indigestion which is not due to a peptic ulcer. It is also known as functional dyspepsia in that indigestion occurs despite there being no detectable abnormality.
- Gastritis is stomach wall inflammation most commonly due to H.pylori infection and excessive use of NSAIDs. It can be erosive where there is formation of stomach ulcers.
- Gastric outlet obstruction is a term for any condition which impedes the flow of stomach contents into the duodenum. It can occur with a mass such as a polyp, peptic ulcer disease, duodenal webs, gallstones and narrowing of the pylorus (pyloric stenosis).
- Gastroparesis is a condition where there is dysfunction of the vagus nerve activity that controls normal emptying of the stomach. It is an uncommon condition that is seen with long term and poorly managed diabetes mellitus, with the use of certain drugs and after specific surgical procedures.
- Stomach tumors may be benign or malignant. Stomach polyps are one type of benign growth that can obstruct the outlet of the stomach. Cancer of the stomach (gastric carcinoma) may also contribute to symptoms like abnormal fullness in the stomach.
- Abdominal tumors that arise in organs around the stomach can grow into large masses that compress the stomach. This may reduce the ability of the stomach to distend as normal especially after eating.
- Hiatal hernia is a condition where a portion of the upper part of the stomach protrudes through the diaphragmatic opening into the thoracic (chest) cavity.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is the backward flow of stomach acid into the esophagus. Although it does not affect the stomach, the irritation of the esophagus by the acid can lead to a host of symptoms and complications which may be associated with a feeling of stomach fullness.
Full stomach feeling without eating
A feeling of stomach fullness without eating is usually due to some irritation of the stomach as is seen with gastritis and peptic ulcers. It may also be due to a lack of appetite (anorexia) which is a common symptom of many diseases. Abdominal distention can also contribute to feeling a full stomach despite not eating.
Full stomach feeling after small meals
Early satiety or postprandial fullness usually indicates some obstruction of the stomach outlet, mass within the stomach or compression of the stomach. In these instances just a little food may reach a point where the stomach cannot stretch any further. It can also occur when the stomach capacity is greatly reduced in size after a portion of the stomach is removed as is seen with certain cancer surgery or stapled in weight loss surgery.
Treatment of Full Stomach Feeling
A full stomach feeling is a symptom of some underlying disease. In order to effectively treat the symptom, the cause must be diagnosed. Diagnostic investigations like a barium meal x-ray and upper gastrointestinal endoscopy may be required to identify the cause. Although conditions like non-ulcer dyspepsia will usually pass on its own, other causes need definitive medical treatment. Therefore medical attention should be sought. Depending on the cause, medication and/ or surgery may be needed.
Diet and Remedies
Conservative measures may be sufficient to manage some causes of a full stomach feeling such as non-ulcer dyspepsia. However, medical treatment should not be avoided despite adopting dietary and lifestyle measures to manage the symptom. Some of these measures may be helpful includes :
- Chew food in the mouth thoroughly before swallowing.
- Avoid carbonated beverages including sodas and beer especially when eating.
- Eat slowly to prevent air collecting in the stomach as a result of air swallowing (aerophagia).
- Opt for many small meals throughout the day in order to cope with the symptom and to avoid any complications from inadequate nutrition.
- Avoid spicy foods, alcohol, tea and coffee or consume it in moderation.
- Try to identify any problem foods and avoid it. Always keep a food diary if the full stomach feeling seems to occur with certain meals only.
- Moderate exercise, such as light walking, after eating can help with digestion.
- Do not lie flat or go to sleep immediately after eating, especially after a large meal.
- Mint candies and herbal bitters may be helpful but should not be used to replace prescribed medication.
Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on January 20, 2013