You're in the heat of the holiday season. The often inevitable stress of planning, preparing, and gathering friends and family to the dinner table hits you. Then, the large, late-night meal is served. You serve seconds, and thirds. You may have a glass of wine or two with dinner. Then, you sip a cappuccino with your chocolaty dessert. You pop a dinner mint. Soon after the guests leave, you fall into your bed after a fun, but exhausting night. This common dinner routine sets the stage for heartburn.
Although it has nothing to do with the heart, the painful sensation incited by heartburn often
feels like a mild heart attack. It occurs when the sphincter or "door" between the esophagus
and stomach relaxes, allowing acid or partially digested food (reflux) from the stomach to rise
up into the esophagus. When the esophagus is irritated by reflux, a sharp pain occurs in the
upper abdomen, just a few inches below the breast bone.
When painful heartburn occurs more than twice per week, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is often diagnosed. About 19 million Americans suffer from GERD.
While some cases of heartburn are linked to obesity, genetics, or aging, this problem has become more and more common in healthy and young individuals. 36% of healthy Americans experience it at least once a month.
Many factors, including genetic and environmental ones, are involved. However, here are some lifestyle factors that can help "tame the fire" and soothe the burn.
Slow and Steady
There should be a speed limit to eating, especially if you want to avoid heartburn. Eating slowly allows for better digestion and makes heartburn less likely. Nibble, take smaller bites, and savor the flavors. If you're at a holiday party, enjoy the company and participate in the conversations. This will help you eat slowly.
Stop Before You're Stuffed
When we think of controlling our portion sizes, we usually thing it's only for cutting back on extra calories. However, eating too much at once can also increase your chances of suffering from heartburn. It's a win-win. A helpful tip is to use smaller plates or avoid serving seconds. Drink a protein shake before going to that holiday party to prevent over-eating.
Don't Feed the Flame: Forget Fatty Fare
Many traditional home-cooked meals tend to be higher in fat. High-fat foods like to hang around in the stomach longer. This increases pressure in the stomach, pushing acid up into the esophagus. For a heartburn-free dinner, cook with leaner meats and non-fat dairy products.
Listen to your Body
Everyone has different specific trigger-foods. Keep a written record of what foods or
circumstances triggered certain episodes of heartburn. Avoid the offending foods.
Some are sensitive to acidic foods, especially on an empty stomach. Citrusy fruits, tomato- based foods, and vinegar are the most commonly blamed foods. Others are sensitive to caffeinated and carbonated drinks, such as coffee, tea, and other fizzy drinks that may boost the acid in the stomach and lead to heartburn symptoms. Excess alcohol can relax the "door" between the esophagus and stomach. If you are sensitive to these drinks, try water to dilute the acid, herbal teas, or non-fat milk.
You don't have to give up your favorite comfort foods. Altering the recipes for lower fat ingredients or replacing trigger foods can make tasty, heartburn-free alternatives. For example, instead of potatoes au gratin, try some roasted sweet potatoes. Warm up to a decaffeinated herbal tea instead of hot chocolate. Instead of a beefy chili, try a white-chicken chili lower in fat and lighter on spices.
Studies show that meals high in dietary fiber reduce the risk of reflux. Fiber will help keep the digestive tract moving. Keep the carbohydrates in your meals complex.
Managing stress and taking steps toward a healthier lifestyle, such as avoiding smoking or losing
excess weight can also help minimize heartburn symptoms. Excess weight can cause pressure
on the stomach to drive acids back up into the esophagus. Keep up with your exercise routine.
Research shows that those who exercise regularly experience less heartburn.
Lying down too soon after a meal almost guarantees the symptoms will come. This happens because the position of the body makes it easier for the stomach acid to flow into the esophagus. Plan to remain upright for at least 2 to 3 hours after a meal. Another practical way to minimize the distress of heartburn is to avoid wearing tight-fitting clothing.
If you tried many of these tips and still feel the pain, a non-drug approach to relieving the burn is to swallow repeatedly. This pushes the acid in the esophagus back down into the stomach. Also, EnergyFirst Enerzyme is a supplement taken with meals that can help keep heartburn at bay as it provides the enzymes needed to enhance digestion.
Esmaillzadeh A, Keshteli AH, Feizi A, Zaribaf F, Feinle-Bisset C, Adibi P. Patterns of diet-related practices and prevalence of gastro-esophageal reflux disease. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2013 Oct;25(10):831-e638. doi: 10.1111/nmo.12192. Epub 2013 Jul 29.
Nilsson M, Johnsen R, Ye W, Hveem K, Lagergren J. Lifestyle related risk factors in the aetiology of gastro-oesophageal reflux. Gut 2004;53:1730-1735 doi:10.1136/gut.2004.043265
Thompson J, Manore M. (2009). Nutrition: an applied approach (2nd Benjamin Cummings. Ed.). San Francisco: Pearson