Dizziness After Eating
Most people have experienced dizziness when they’re overdue for a meal. When our blood sugar gets low, we can feel lightheaded, fatigued, and out of sorts. It’s our body’s way of letting us know it’s time to fuel up again, and the symptoms go away once we’ve taken care of eating. However, dizziness can also occur after eating, which may indicate a more serious underlying problem.
What is Dizziness?
There are a variety of symptoms that people describe as “dizziness.” When an individual seeks medical attention for dizziness, the treating healthcare professional must first identify which type of dizziness is occurring. There are four main types of dizziness symptoms:
- Lightheadedness – this refers to the feeling that one is about to faint,
- Vertigo – this is a false sensation that one is swaying, or spinning, or that the environment is moving; it is usually accompanied by significant nausea,
- Psychophysiological dizziness – this is an “out-of-body” sensation, as if one is floating, or spinning through the air, detached from the earth,
- Motion Sickness/Visual Sensitivity – this is a sensation of self motion and the world moving on you causing dizziness sensation, and
- Disequilibrium – this involves feeling off-balance or moving due to sensory conflict, where what is seen and what is felt do not match. This is often felt when on unstable surfaces or when in complex vision and surface environments.
Each type of dizziness has different causes and different treatments, so identifying the exact nature of the dizziness is critical.
Dizziness of any type is a distressing symptom and may prevent people from being able to function properly. Further, safety is a major concern because dizziness carries a significant risk for falls and other accidents. Sudden bursts of dizziness may even cause motor vehicle accidents if they occur while driving.
Let us now look at the various causes of dizziness after eating.
Postprandial (literally “after eating”) hypotension (low blood pressure) is a surprisingly common cause of dizziness after eating, affecting about a third of older adults.
After we eat, the body diverts extra blood flow to the digestive system to absorb nutrients from the recent meal. Although this takes some much-needed blood flow away from other body parts, the body naturally compensates by making the heart beat faster and stronger and the blood vessels narrow. This causes the blood pressure and blood flow to the rest of the body to remain stable while digestion occurs.
However, with some people the heart and blood vessels do not compensate for the effects of digestion on blood flow, resulting in a sudden drop in blood pressure. This can result in dizziness after eating – usually in the form of lightheadedness – which may even progress to fainting if the individual does not sit or lay down to help restore the blood flow to the brain.
There are several reasons that people develop postprandial hypotension:
- Genetic predisposition – people who inherit genes that affect their ability to properly compensate for blood pressure drops may develop dizziness after eating,
- Damage to the nerves that sense blood pressure changes – this can occur because of stroke, injury, or disease of the nerves. Diabetes and Parkinson’s disease are two culprits that cause diseases of the nerves that can cause postprandial dizziness,
- Age-related changes – as we age our body’s ability to detect and respond to drops in blood pressure may become impaired,
- High blood pressure (hypertension) – chronic hypertension can stiffen arteries and impair heart function, which may result in poor response to blood pressure drops, and
- Medications – some medications can restrict the heart and blood vessels’ ability to respond to drops in blood pressure. The medications known as “beta-blockers,” for example, reduce the heart’s ability to speed up and the blood vessels’ ability to contract during digestion.
People who experience dizziness after eating due to postprandial hypotension can take some simple measures to help prevent the blood pressure drops that cause the dizziness, and to reduce the likelihood of falls from the dizziness:
- Taking water before eating – this temporarily increases the blood volume, thereby protecting against blood pressure drops. Shoot for drinking 12-18 ounces of water about 15 minutes before a meal,
- Anticipating the dizziness – the blood pressure usually bottoms out about 30-60 minutes after eating, so sitting or laying down after meals is an effective way to reduce the dizziness and prevent falls,
- Eating smaller meals – the larger the meal, the more blood flow is diverted for digestion, and the bigger the blood pressure drop is likely to be. Eating more often but less per sitting may reduce the blood pressure drop, and
- Reducing simple carbohydrates (sugars) – simple carbohydrates are digested faster, so more blood flow is diverted to absorb them. Complex carbohydrates (i.e., starches and dietary fiber), and proteins are absorbed very slowly.
Various medications have been tried for reducing dizziness after eating due to postprandial hypotension, but none have panned out well in clinical trials. People who experience this symptom chronically may wish to consider a treatment with physical therapist experienced in treating dizziness and unsteadiness.
Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) causes dizziness because the brain needs a certain amount of sugar to function properly. Glucose – the form of sugar that circulates in the blood – is the only energy source the brain can use. The brain is a hungry organ; even though it only constitutes about 2% of our body mass, it uses up to 60% of our glucose energy requirements when we are at rest.
The brain does not work well without fuel, so hypoglycemia results in dizziness that can progress to fainting and even coma and death if glucose levels do not get back to normal. Besides lightheadedness, symptoms of hypoglycemia may include:
- Feeling hungry,
- Feeling sleepy,
- Diaphoresis (profuse sweating),
- Feeling irritable, and
Reactive (or postprandial) hypoglycemia occurs – paradoxically – after eating; usually within four hours of a meal. It occurs in situations where the body produces too much insulin in response to eating, resulting in the blood sugar going too low. Insulin is the hormone that our body uses to take glucose out of the bloodstream and deposit it in cells. When too much insulin is produced, too much glucose can be removed from the blood, resulting in hypoglycemia and dizziness.
Reactive hypoglycemia can occur in the following people:
- Those who are pre-diabetic (i.e., who have Impaired Fasting Glucose (IGT)),
- Those who have had stomach surgery (such as gastric bypass or ulcer surgery),
- Those who eat high carbohydrate meals,
- Diabetics who need their insulin doses adjusted, and
- Those who have certain rare genetic disorders that prevent proper digestion of food.
The exact cause of reactive hypoglycemia is not always found. Sometimes it may be from alcohol intake, or from eating foods that are too rich in simple carbohydrates. People who get dizzy after eating should see their doctor for assessment. While there is no specific treatment for reactive hypoglycemia, identifying and addressing the underlying cause is important. Also, eating smaller, more frequent meals, lowering refined sugar intake, and limiting alcohol intake may be helpful.
As with any kind of dizziness, lifestyle and safety concerns make diagnosis and treatment important. People who experience repeated dizziness may wish to consider a treatment with physical therapist experienced in treating dizziness and unsteadiness.
Sometimes food choices and peoples’ sensitivities to certain foods can result in dizziness after eating. Here are some of the more common causes:
- Alcohol – alcohol is a “CNS depressant,” meaning that it slows down the function of the brain by increasing the effects of the brain chemical that’s responsible for slowing down the brain (the neurotransmitter “GABA”). As such, people who take wine or other alcoholic drinks with their meal may feel lightheaded afterwards. As well, alcohol can promote postprandial hypoglycemia, and migraines, which are also causes of dizziness after eating,
- Migraine triggers – some migraine headaches include dizziness as a symptom. Foods that may trigger a migraine include:
- Foods containing MSG (monosodium glutamate),
- Dairy products,
- Pickled foods, and
- Caffeine – caffeine is a stimulant drug, and therefore causes increases in heart rate. People who are unable to tolerate a rapid heart rate – such as older adults or people with heart problems – may feel lightheaded, and
- Salty foods – people with chronic vertigo (such as those who suffer from Meniere’s disease) may have their vertigo triggered or worsened by foods with high salt content. This is likely due to excess fluid content in the inner ear due to the increased blood volume that occurs following salt intake.
When acid makes its way from the stomach up to the throat and mouth, it can cause several symptoms, including heartburn, chest pain, and cough. In some people, acid reflux may even reach their inner ear by travelling up the Eustachian tubes, which run from the throat to the ear. This may cause vertigo.
Some foods are well known to cause or worsen acid reflux, often very soon after eating. These include:
- Spicy foods,
- Caffeine-containing beverages, and
- Tomato sauces.
Several medications are well known to cause dizziness – usually in the form of lightheadedness or disequilibrium – and many of these medications are taken with meals. There are many such medications, including:
- Anti-depressants and mood stabilizers,
- Blood pressure medications,
- Heart medications (particularly anti-arrhythmics),
- Muscles relaxers,
- Pain medications,
- Antibiotics, and
Anyone who experiences dizziness after eating and takes medications with meals may wish to investigate their medications as the cause. Even if there are other causes, the medications may worsen the dizziness. Most medications that can cause dizziness to have a warning label on them, but reviewing medications with the prescriber or a pharmacist may be a wise precaution.
Standing Up Too Quickly
Lots of people experience dizziness when they first stand up, even if only occasionally. This kind of dizziness is usually in the form of lightheadedness, although vertigo may also occur. The sudden position change may cause a transient reduction in blood flow to the brain, thereby causing the dizziness.
When we are sitting, we compress our major leg and buttocks muscles on the chair, so that the muscles and their blood vessels do not hold much blood compared to when we are using our leg muscles. As well, since we are sitting and not using our leg muscles to support ourselves and walk, the oxygen and glucose requirement of the muscles is very low, so not much blood is sent down to the inactive legs. When we stand, all that suddenly changes.
As soon as we stand up, all the pressure is lifted from the leg and buttocks muscles, so that the muscles and their blood vessels suddenly refill with blood. As well, since the muscles are now being used to stand and walk, the body diverts more blood to the legs to support their use. The overall result is that a huge reservoir of blood is now diverted to the legs, in the opposite direction of the brain, and the brain is temporarily robbed of adequate blood supply.
This effect is worsened by the fact that the recent meal has diverted blood from the general circulation to the digestive tract, further complicating the inadequate blood flow to the brain.
The ensuing dizziness may be very brief while the heart and blood vessels compensate, or it may be prolonged in those who have impairments in cardiovascular function.
Due to the safety concerns when people experience dizziness, as well as the adverse effects on lifestyle, diagnosis and treatment of dizziness is important. As well, dizziness may be a symptom of a larger underlying problem, so it should never be ignored. The most important aspect of the management of dizziness is identifying and correcting the underlying cause.
In many cases, the underlying cause of dizziness can be diagnosed and treated. However, in some cases the dizziness may become chronic and recurrent. When that happens, an important part of treatment includes balance and gait therapy, to prevent injury from falls and to optimize day-to-day function. In such cases, access to a physical therapist with expertise in diagnosing and treating dizziness becomes important.
Specially trained physical therapists can assess each patient’s dizzy symptoms to customize the optimal treatment approach for that individual’s specific type of dizziness. Therefore, expertise in treating vertigo and other types of dizziness is important when selecting a physical therapist.
FYZICAL® Therapy & Balance Centers provide specialized physical therapy for a wide variety of musculoskeletal, neurological, visual, and inner ear conditions that cause dizziness and poor balance, including dizziness after eating.
The dizziness treatment program at FYZICAL uses established proprietary treatment and recovery protocols that include specialized cutting-edge equipment that is not available at other physical therapy centers. This makes the specialized physical therapists at FYZICAL an excellent choice for those seeking relief from dizziness of any kind.
FYZICAL offers free assessments to diagnose dizziness and to determine each individual’s falling risk. The physical therapists at FYZICAL will then create a recovery program tailored to each patient’s specific condition and needs.
FYZICAL offers a wide variety of physical therapy services by qualified providers across the U.S. To find a FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Center near you, visit our website at FYZICAL.com. Our highly skilled therapy providers are 100% focused on your optimal health so you can Love Your Life®!
To learn more about how FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Centers can help you, download our free e-book.