Chest pain from not eating enough

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Chest pain when not eating or drinking enough happens to many people and it is usually not a sign of a serious medical condition.

However, if it happens regularly or the pain doesn’t go away after eating you should talk to your doctor.

What causes chest pain?

Chest pain can be temporary, requiring little or no attention to go away, or severe and persistent, needing proper medical intervention.

Cardiac chest pain

While the most dangerous of them all is chest pain relating to heart attack or other heart-related diseases, chest pain can also arise due to problems with the nerves, lungs, ribs, muscles, and esophagus.

Eating is not a common trigger of heart-related chest pain. However, those who already have cardiac issues should be mindful about their diet.

Noncardiac chest pain

Noncardiac chest pain is usually pain associated with problems with the esophagus, which is chiefly the result of acid reflux.

Since the heart and the esophagus share the same network of nerves, acid reflux symptoms such as heartburn, tend to cause pain at the level of the chest as well.

Generally, gastrointestinal problems like uncoordinated esophageal muscle contractions, peptic ulcers, and hiatal hernia, all provoke chest pain.

Chest pain when hungry

Chest pain due to hunger (hunger pang), is a normal temporary situation encountered by many people around the world.

When a person is hungry, or the stomach is empty, the brain sends signals for the release of the hunger hormone called ghrelin, which stimulates the secretion of gastric acid in anticipation of food to be eaten.

When food does not come in, gastric acid accumulates, increasing the chances of it seeping back into the esophagus and causing heartburn and chest pain.

Such pain comes in waves creating discomfort under or behind the sternum.

Excess acid in an empty stomach can also erode the lining of the stomach walls, causing pain that can be felt in the upper abdomen and lower chest area.

Angina and hunger pangs

People who suffer from angina commonly experience chest pain when hungry.

Angina is chest pain that is caused by decreased blood flow to the heart. It occurs due to a buildup of lipid plaque in the arteries over time and it is the most common symptom of coronary heart disease.

When people suffering from angina are hungry, the body may trigger the release of adrenaline, the ‘fight or flight’ hormone, that has a vasoconstrictive (narrowing) effect on the arteries.

This further reduces the blood supply to the heart which further aggravates chest pain.

People suffering from angina do experience chest pains that frequently spread to the shoulders, arms, and neck.

Why does eating after fasting hurt?

Chest pain can also occur after fasting. The most common causes are overeating and eating too fast:

  • Overeating: Overeating when breaking one’s fast due to hunger. Eating too much causes stomach distention which increases pressure on the stomach, and consequently acid reflux, heartburn, and chest pain.
  • Eating too fast: People tend to eat quickly at the end of their fast, so they do not properly chew their food. Swallowing large chunks of food quickly can also strain the muscles of the esophagus, causing pain.

A study in Abu Dhabi reported that the people admitted to emergency rooms during Ramadan each year had all eaten excessively at the end of their fast, and were thus suffered from such symptoms as bloating, stomach cramps, and reflux symptoms like heartburn and chest pain.

Fasting might trigger acid reflux, and chest pain (heartburn) is a typical reflux symptom.

Can hunger pains feel like a heart attack?

Chest pain is a common symptom of both hunger pain and heart attack, and sometimes it may be quite difficult for some people to differentiate them. However, some hallmarks help to distinguish hunger pain from heart problems.

The chest pain that comes with a heart attack is much more severe and intense and is typically accompanied by shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, sweating, and nausea.

Chest pain goes away after eating

Chest pain that is caused by not eating for long periods will definitely go away after one has eaten. This is because the food eaten will soak up the gastric acid secreted in the stomach, decreasing the probability of acid reflux occurrence and consequently chest pain.

Heart palpitations from not eating enough

When a person does not eat for long or does not eat enough, their blood sugar levels drop stimulating the body to release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

These hormones are released to prepare the body for emergency food shortages.

Adrenaline when released, causes an increase in heartbeat rate, thus heart palpitations will be experienced.

Can not drinking enough water cause indigestion?

Indigestion is described as discomfort or pain of the upper abdominal region, or pain behind the breastbone. It is also characterized by feeling full very quickly after one begins to eat or drink, feeling uncomfortably too full after eating, bloating, burping, gas, nausea, and loud growling in the stomach.

Drinking water is a long-time natural remedy for indigestion.

Water has a neutral pH of 7, which temporarily raises the pH of the stomach and neutralizes the stomach acids.

Water also increases movements in the digestive tract, causing food to travel quickly and smoothly relieving ingestion symptoms.

Not drinking enough water has been reported to be associated with indigestion in many research studies. Lack of water makes it difficult for the body to produce digestive acids, which facilitate food digestion in the digestive tract.

Typically, not drinking enough water is shown to worsen chest pain, acid reflux, and heartburn. On the other hand, drinking too much water also might trigger chest pain.

How to prevent chest pain from not eating enough?

The simplest and most obvious solution is to eat regularly, and not skip a meal.

Everybody reacts differently to hunger, some have no problems even after not eating for 10-14 hours, while others – especially those who are prone to acid reflux – might experience symptoms like chest pain even after not eating for a few hours.

Find out how much time between meals you can tolerate and respect the needs of your body. Many say that eating less is healthy and while this is probably true for most people, it might not always be the case.

Another important thing you can do to avoid chest pain triggered by being hungry is to drink enough water.

As mentioned above, dehydration might also lead to chest pain. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day has several health benefits.

Final thoughts

Though chest pain is the most common sign of heart attack, not eating enough can also be responsible for chest pain. In this case, the chest pain is not life-threatening.

Experts advise people to eat regularly and not skip meals, to prevent the occurrence or reoccurrence of chest pain.

Also, regularly drinking water, hydrates the body, eases digestion, and prevents indigestion and all the pain and discomfort that comes with it.

This article has been written by:

Meggy Jones

Expert Nutritionist and Food Scientist,
M.Sc. – Nutrition, ugent, Belgium