Gastroparesis is a disorder in which the stomach takes too long to empty its contents. Normally, the stomach has regular contractions to move food down into the small intestine for digestion. Gastroparesis can occur when the vagus nerve that controls and coordinates this movement is damaged or stops working. As a result, the muscles of the stomach and intestines don’t work normally, and food moves slowly or stops moving through the digestive tract. Symptoms include heartburn, pain in the upper abdomen, nausea, vomiting of undigested food (sometimes several hours after a meal), feeling full after only a few bites of food, weight loss due to poor absorption of nutrients or low caloric intake, abdominal bloating, unstable blood glucose levels, lack of appetite, gastroesophageal reflux, and abdominal spasms.
The most common cause of gastroparesis is diabetes. Here, high blood sugar affects the health of nerves throughout the body and can damage the vagus nerve. Other causes include surgery on the stomach, viral infections, eating disorders (anorexia nervosa or bulimia), medications that slow contractions in the intestine, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Sometimes no cause can be found, which is known as idiopathic gastroparesis.
Treating the cause of gastroparesis (such as controlling blood sugar levels in diabetes) can help relieve symptoms. Dietary changes, including eating smaller, more frequent meals; chewing slowly; and avoiding fatty foods, carbonated beverages, and alcohol, may improve your symptoms. Conventional physicians may also prescribe medications to help the stomach muscles work better. These include metoclopramide and domperidone; drugs that prevent nausea and vomiting may also be helpful.
A number of studies have found that acupuncture can benefit people with gastroparesis. For example, one recent randomized, controlled trial of 99 people with the disorder found that those who received acupuncture for fifteen days in courses of 5 days on and 2 days off — particularly at certain acupuncture points — saw their symptoms resolve (Pain Research and Management, April 25, 2020).
As far as herbal remedies go, some research also suggests that ginger may speed gastric emptying, making it a useful approach for gastroparesis. Try a total of 1,200 mg a day, divided into three doses. Another natural remedy that may prove useful is an herbal concoction called Swedish bitters. The typical dose is one tablespoon before meals. You might also try hypnosis and music therapy, as well as visceral manipulation, a type of massage that aims to release stress and tension from abdominal organs.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Originally Posted July 2009. Updated November 2022.