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What Causes Shortness of Breath After Eating?

COPD Basics

August 11, 2023

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Photography by AsiaVision/Getty Images

Photography by AsiaVision/Getty Images

by Stephanie Orford

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Medically Reviewed by:

Angelica Balingit, MD

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•••••

by Stephanie Orford

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Angelica Balingit, MD

•••••

•••••

It’s common for COPD to make you feel out of breath after you eat. But there are things you can do to feel better after meals and enjoy your food.

Feeling out of breath after you finish every meal or snack can feel uncomfortable or even painful.

If you live with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you may experience shortness of breath after eating. But COPD isn’t the only cause of shortness of breath.

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Causes of shortness of breath after eating

There are many different reasons why you may feel short of breath after eating.

Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is a common symptom of COPD. But there are other conditions that may make you feel short of breath after a meal.

Other common causes of dyspnea after eating include:

  • Gas and bloating: If you’re bloated after a meal, it can cause your abdominal cavity to press upward on your diaphragm, making it harder to breathe.
  • Food allergies: If you have a food allergy, you may feel short of breath after eating a food you’re allergic to. Allergic reactions can restrict airways and make it hard to swallow. Anaphylaxis is the most severe type of allergic reaction, and it can be fatal if not treated promptly with epinephrine.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): People living with GERD may experience chronic cough, belching, hoarseness, or chest pain (heartburn), among other symptoms that can make it harder to breathe after eating. You may also have a condition called GERD-related asthma, which makes it hard to breathe after eating due to GERD symptoms.
  • Inhaled food: Accidentally breathing in food while eating.
  • Hiatal hernia: A condition in which your stomach may protrude up into your esophagus. It can cause discomfort and shortness of breath after you eat. It’s also one cause of GERD.
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Why COPD causes shortness of breath after eating

It’s not uncommon to experience shortness of breath after eating if you have COPD, according to the COPD Foundation.

If you live with COPD and experience breathlessness after eating, there are a few techniques you can try to help make breathing — and eating — easier.

Here are a couple of explanations for how COPD causes shortness of breath:

There’s less room in your abdomen for breathing

It may feel more difficult to breathe after you eat a big meal, especially if you have gas.

When your stomach is full, it can push against your lungs, making it harder to expand them, according to the COPD Foundation.

Bloating can also occur after a meal, putting pressure on your belly and diaphragm.

Your lungs could be hyperinflated

Many people with COPD also experience hyperinflation, which is when air gets trapped in the lungs persistently.

Hyperinflation occurs when the lungs lose elasticity. Since the lungs cannot stretch or return to normal exhalation volume, people cannot fully exhale. This means air gets trapped in the lungs, which can lead to shortness of breath.

The shortness of breath you experience after eating may be caused by hyperinflation.

Your swallowing-breathing pattern may be off

Breathing pattern may be key. A typical healthy breathing pattern in people without COPD is exhale–swallow–exhale.

Researchers found that breathing and swallowing discoordination can exacerbate COPD symptoms.

A 2009 study found that some people with COPD swallow while inhaling or right after, and it may cause shortness of breath. In other words, the timing of swallowing can interfere with breathing.

There’s also an interesting association between GERD and worsening COPD symptoms. You may think GERD is causing your shortness of breath after meals. But it’s unclear whether GERD actually causes shortness of breath after eating in people living with COPD.

A 2008 study on the association between COPD and GERD found that when participants took medication to reduce GERD symptoms, their COPD symptoms didn’t improve at the same time.

What to do if you experience shortness of breath after eating

If you think you have a swallowing-breathing difficulty, you can consciously work to improve your breathing and swallowing pattern. Researchers have suggested it may help improve your COPD symptoms.

Here are some other tips for catching your breath after a meal, according to the American Lung Association and COPD Foundation:

  • Rest ahead of meals: Sit or lie down and let your breathing slow down before a meal.
  • Take it slow: Chew your food slowly and take smaller bites.
  • Sitting position: Keep your back straight to give your lungs enough room to expand while you breathe.
  • Eat foods that don’t need as much chewing: Mashed potatoes, stew, soup, or other softer foods may be easier to swallow.
  • Pause between bites: Put your fork down for a few moments, rest, and breathe deeply.
  • Eat earlier in the day: This might help if you have more energy for eating and other activities in the morning.
  • Pass on gas-inducing foods: Eat fewer foods that cause you to have gas or feel bloated. You may consider avoiding fried foods, fizzy drinks, certain vegetables, and other gas-inducing foods.
  • Eat smaller meals: If you eat small meals frequently throughout the day, your belly won’t be as full. This can allow your diaphragm more space to fill your lungs with air.
  • Drink liquids later: To avoid feeling too full right after a meal, consider not drinking liquids during meals and having them afterward instead.
  • Use oxygen: If you use oxygen at home, try using it during meals, too.
  • Take nutrition supplements: If you’re unable to eat a nutritious diet consistently due to shortness of breath, you can consider taking a multivitamin to supplement the nutrients you need.
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Takeaway

Feeling out of breath during meals or after eating can feel confusing and uncomfortable. It can make it harder for you to eat well and take pleasure in your meals. But these tips can help you breathe easier and make your next meal more enjoyable.

Medically reviewed on August 11, 2023

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