Tips for a Heartburn-Free Holiday

Northwestern Medicine
Health and Wellness December 15, 2011

Unfortunately, heartburn and holidays can go hand in hand. You gather with family, indulge in your favorite fare and often go back for second and third helpings due to the numerous dishes being passed. But choosing the right food and being careful not to overeat can put you well on your way to a heartburn-free holiday.

According to John Pandolfino, MD, gastroenterologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, heartburn affects 40-60 million Americans annually. While it does not typically indicate a serious health condition, it is uncomfortable and extremely common. Recognizing which foods are most likely to cause heartburn is the best method of prevention. Known triggers include onions, chocolate, alcoholic beverages, caffeinated and carbonated drinks, fatty or fried foods, garlic, spicy foods, mint flavorings and tomato-based foods.

Heartburn occurs when acid from the stomach refluxes into the esophagus, causing irritation. This happens when the lower esophageal opening is not able to block stomach contents and is overwhelmed by gastric acid that backs up into the esophagus.

Pandolfino offers the following tips for taking care of heartburn:

  • Don’t overeat: Eating large portions can often lead to heartburn. “The amount you eat is as important as what you eat,” said Pandolfino. Eating smaller, more frequent meals is better than consuming a large amount of food in one sitting.
  • Get off the couch: Lying down or bending at the waist following a meal, when acid production is at its highest level, contributes to heartburn.
  • Over-the-counter solutions: Drug stores carry a wide-variety of medications to ease heartburn, such as histamine receptor blockers and antacids. Histamine receptor blockers can be purchased over-the-counter and can be taken before eating to help slow the production of stomach acid. Antacids are also an option, however, they only buffer the acid in the stomach and do not prevent it from forming. “If you know you’ll be eating foods that give you heartburn, preempt it by taking medication beforehand,” said Pandolfino. “Over-the-counter medications only give temporary relief for heartburn. If needed on a regular basis, definitely talk with your physician about other solutions.”

Heartburn, while common, may indicate a more serious health condition such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). “If symptoms persist, contact your physician who can help you get a better understanding of GERD and discuss treatment options,” said Pandolfino. "If your heartburn is new and is associated with shortness of breath, palpitations or severe nausea and vomiting, seek immediate medical attention. These could be the symptoms of a heart attack."

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