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What Happens to Your Body When You Eat Too Much

Most of us overeat occasionally. Here’s why you feel so bad when you binge, and what can help you feel better

spinner image illustration of a man sleeping on the sofa after overeating a pizza due to a blood sugar spike
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Have you ever eaten so much that you felt like your stomach would explode? Almost all of us can recall times we’ve eaten past the point of fullness, whether overindulging at a favorite fast-food restaurant or gorging on a holiday meal.

Overeating often seems to happen around the holidays, when we gather with family for celebrations that revolve around special foods we may not eat on a regular basis. “It’s easy to get swept up in the joy and celebration of the holiday, or to turn to food as a way of managing anxiety and stress — both are things that contribute to overeating,” says Kate Craigen, director of clinical integrity and a clinical psychologist at Monte Nido & Affiliates, a national eating disorder treatment organization.

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If it becomes a habit, frequent overeating — especially of unhealthy foods — can lead to an eating disorder or excess weight gain. Carrying too much weight increases your risk of heart issues, stroke, type 2 diabetes, breathing problems, many types of cancer and premature death.

But even in the short term, overeating has an effect on your body, experts say. Here are six things that happen to your body when you eat too much, and what you can do to feel better.

1. Your stomach expands and presses on your other organs

Think of your stomach as a balloon that expands when you eat. When it’s empty, it looks a lot like a raisin, says Matthew Hoscheit, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic: “It’s shriveled up, so it doesn’t take up a lot of space in the abdomen.”

As you eat, your stomach stretches to accommodate the extra food, and your whole abdomen swells. That’s why you start to feel like you need to undo your top button or belt, says Jennifer Earles, a registered dietitian for Novant Health Bariatrics Solutions in Charlotte.

If you keep eating, your stomach expands so much that it starts pressing on your other internal organs. “It’s an uncomfortable feeling,” Earles says.

2. Your metabolism revs up

To help your body break down all that food, your metabolism will temporarily speed up after a big meal, says Brittany Werner, a registered dietitian and director of coaching with Working Against Gravity, an online nutrition coaching company.

That switch into overdrive can cause some people to temporarily feel hot, sweaty or dizzy after eating too much, Werner says. “That’s your body trying to do its job,” she explains.

3. Your heart pumps harder to send extra blood to your digestive system

When you eat too much, your body diverts blood flow and energy away from your brain and other organs to the intestines, Hoscheit says. “That’s part of the reason why you feel tired,” he adds.

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Your heart also beats faster for several hours to pump the extra blood your body needs for digestion.

One study divided people into two groups: one group that ate a small meal and another that ate a meal two and a half times larger. The study found that people who ate the larger meal produced twice as much blood. Their heart rates were also significantly more elevated compared to the smaller-meal group,and remained high two hours later, while the heart rates of the small-meal group had gone back to normal.

4. You feel tired and sluggish

You’ve probably noticed that you don’t have a lot of energy when your stomach is stuffed. A dip in energy level is normal because your body is working so hard to digest the food. After eating, your organs also release extra enzymes and hormones such as leptin and serotonin that can contribute to fatigue, Hoscheit says. One study showed you may feel sleepy and lethargic for up to four hours after overeating.

5. Your blood sugar may spike, then crash

When you eat, your blood sugar (glucose) rises, especially if you eat foods high in sugar and carbohydrates. That prompts your body to release a hormone called insulin to move glucose out of your bloodstream and into your cells, where it can be used for energy, Werner says.

When you eat too much too quickly, “your body can’t keep up,” she explains. “If it can’t release enough insulin, your blood sugar spikes and then crashes afterward.” That crash can make you feel jittery and contribute to feelings of lethargy and fatigue.

6. You may experience heartburn and acid reflux

It’s common for people to experience heartburn and bloating after overeating, Hoscheit says. Heartburn happens when stomach acid and other stomach contents flow up into your esophagus, creating an unpleasant burning feeling in your chest.

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When your stomach is stretched out by too much food, the muscle that separates your esophagus from your stomach can temporarily loosen.

If you’ve already packed a lot of food into your stomach, “the food has to go somewhere, so it refluxes back into the esophagus,” Hoscheit says.

How to feel better after eating too much

The good news is that most people feel fine a few hours after they eat too much. And as long as it’s not a regular occurrence, studies show the body bounces back from a single episode of overeating pretty quickly.

Here are a few steps you can take to ease your discomfort the next time you find yourself feeling uncomfortably full and bloated.

• Don’t beat yourself up. “There is no reason to feel bad about yourself or have food shame,” Werner says, noting that most of us overeat at least occasionally. “What’s done is done. Look forward and learn lessons from the past.”

• Stay upright. When you don’t feel well, you may be inclined to nap or lounge on the couch, but remaining standing for a while aids the natural flow of digestion, Earles says. It also lowers the risk of heartburn and acid reflux.

• Get moving. Some light activity, such as a walk around the block, can help ease discomfort and prompt your body to start burning off the extra calories. “It also helps regulate that blood sugar back down, so it doesn’t crash too soon ... which is going to make you feel better,” Earles says.

• Drink water. Mixing liquids with solids eases the digestion process for the stomach and can help prevent constipation. “Think about a blender — it’s easier to blend up solids if you add water,” Hoscheit says.

• Try ginger or peppermint products. Both home remedies have been shown to help soothe the stomach, Hoscheit says. They come in different forms, including teas and lozenges.

• Pop an antacid for heartburn. Over-the-counter antacids help neutralize stomach acid and can provide quick relief from heartburn symptoms.

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