If a loved one says they’re full after a few bites of a meal, there might be more happening than them “just not feeling that hungry right now.”

Be sure to alert a preferred medical professional if this begins to happen more frequently since it’s possible they may be experiencing a medical condition called gastroparesis.

The short definition is that their stomach and related digestive muscles may no longer work like they’re supposed to. This often means food sits in their stomach longer than it should, which can cause feelings of bloating, nausea, or even a need to vomit partially digested or even undigested food. It may also lead to painful acid reflux from stomach acid building up so much that it splashes the esophagus.

Gastroparesis also could lead to stomach nerves sending out signals that it’s full, although the rest of their body still craves food to keep its metabolism going. The condition could also cause delays in bowel movements, leading to feelings of constipation.

Learning about causes

Depending on the individual, gastroparesis can be a condition that’s occasionally irritating or something that causes a high level of pain, discomfort, or even limits regular activity.

Because it interferes with the standard digestive process, gastroparesis could impact blood sugar levels, overall nutrition, and even quality of life for some. It could cause weight loss over time and other effects of malnutrition, such as low energy and hair loss. Undigested food could also cause damage or intestinal blockages.

Typically, it can take about 2 to 3 hours for the stomach to fully empty and people begin to feel hungry again. Gastroparesis can delay or extend this process for a few more hours.

While science has figured out what happens in the body when this condition occurs, there still is uncertainty about specific causes which make stomach muscles stop working or at least not work like they’re supposed to.

It may be related to complications from diabetes when certain body processes start working differently or are affected by other changing processes in the body due to blood sugar imbalances.

It could be related to abdominal trauma or recent abdominal surgery that causes vital muscles to be damaged, affecting the flow of food through the digestive tract. The vagus nerve, which controls digestive muscles, also could be damaged.

In some cases, combinations of medications may slow down muscle motion, including high blood pressure medicine, opioid-based pain medicine, allergy medicine, or antidepressants. Certain combinations of medications may aggravate already-existing symptoms.

What can help

Gastroparesis can be identified through a variety of tests and screenings. These may include an ultrasound or an endoscopy as well as hearing symptoms.

Then, a healthcare provider will try to figure out ways to reverse it and get those muscles moving properly to restore digestive balance.

This effort may start by recommending dietary changes for the short term or even longer duration. Your provider or a dietitian may suggest temporarily switching to foods that are easier and faster to digest to get the system moving or even reducing the effort and demand currently required. They may also suggest foods that are higher in calories and more nutritious than your current diet if there are concerns about malnutrition.

Reducing gastroparesis may require changes in how you eat: maybe consider smaller meals throughout the day rather than a few larger meals which will fill the stomach faster. Or try smaller portions that are cut up into smaller pieces that may pass through the stomach more rapidly.

Another suggestion is to eat more fruit and vegetables that have been cooked, rather than raw foods that may be harder and slower to digest.

Soups, broths, or more liquid-based foods like stews are softer and also may be easier to digest.

Foods that are white in color may be effective, like bread or tortillas, rice, or pasta, may be effective. (However, these types of gluten-based foods also may be more harmful for certain digestive conditions such as celiac, which is why input from a health care provider or dietitian is critical.)

Certain prescribed or over-the-counter medications have also been found to be effective for treating gastroparesis, including metoclopramide, erythromycin, and domperidone. Anti-nausea medications may also help. Medical interventions such as feeding tubes or gastric muscle electrical stimulation may be recommended in severe cases

Learning more

If you’re concerned about gastroparesis, there are plenty of resources. Plus, August is Gastroparesis Awareness Month, an opportunity for experts in this field to share their info and spread the word about how to find out more.

The International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, a non-profit organization, spearheads the global effort to let the public know about the challenges of this condition. The number of people diagnosed with it does seem to be rising, but more awareness is needed as well as more research into topics like possible cures or at least ways to slow symptoms or provide some relief and better care.

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