Here’s a perfect recipe for acid reflux: lots of rich foods and alcohol, big meals and post-feast lounging. No wonder many people suffer from heartburn during the holidays.
“People definitely tend to indulge a little more this time of year, which puts them at higher risk,” says Holly Hicks, a registered dietitian at the Riverside Wellness & Fitness Center in Newport News, Va. “A lot of common holiday foods also are high in fat, which is a known trigger—anything from mashed potatoes with gravy to chocolate desserts.”
Reflux, also known as acid indigestion, happens when stomach acids used in digestion spill into the esophagus, or tube that carries food down from the mouth. The acid escapes when a small muscle between the esophagus and stomach relaxes too much, whether due to extra pressure from overeating, slowed digestion linked to high-fat foods, tight clothing or lying down too soon after meals.
While the stomach wall is coated with mucus to protect it from acid, the esophagus is not. Reflux symptoms include burning pain in the chest, coughing and trouble swallowing. Chronic reflux can lead to, or be a sign of, a serious medical condition.
About 20 percent of Americans suffer from reflux more than twice a week, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. But almost everyone has experienced an occasional bout—especially during the season of holiday parties.
In the long-term, losing excess weight and quitting smoking are two of the best ways to prevent heartburn, according to the Mayo Clinic. For now, follow these strategies:
1. Don’t eat too much all at once. Aim to have smaller meals and snacks throughout the day, rather than huge pig-outs.
2. Avoid known heartburn triggers. Everyone is different, but for many people that list includes heavy fried foods, chocolate, tomato sauce, onions, caffeine, alcohol, soda and citrus fruits and juices, any of which may increase acid production or irritate muscle tissue.
3. Don’t go to bed right after a meal. Wait at least three hours before trying to sleep. If it’s daytime, take a walk, organize a sports game or do some active chores instead of immediately crashing on the couch.
4. Wear loose-fitting clothes. Tight pants and belts squeeze the abdomen and the muscle that holds stomach acids in their proper place.
5. Elevate the head of your bed, by about 6 to 9 inches. If heartburn is a nighttime issue, get some help from gravity by placing a piece of wood or a cement block under the feet of your bed. Another option is to insert a wedge—sold at most drugstores—between your mattress and bedsprings.
6. Be smart at buffets. Take only foods you really crave, but in limited portions, and pass on anything you don’t. Try to fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables. Use appetizer-sized plates if available, and take smaller bites.
7. Go easy on the booze. Alcohol can relax muscles, slow digestion, increase production of stomach acid and cause bloating. Drink plenty of water instead—or at least alternate liquor and water.
8. Exercise regularly. Physical activity speeds up the digestive process so that foods don’t sit in the stomach for too long.
9. Skip social smoking. Even one cigarette can interfere with the function of the muscle between the esophagus and stomach.
10. Take an over-the-counter medication. For infrequent heartburn, antacids or acid blockers such as Tums, Rolaids or Pepcid AC can bring relief. If reflux becomes chronic, see a doctor.