Are you looking forward to a heartwarming holiday season, but dread the heart-burning effects of holiday food? According to recent statistics, 20% of Americans have heartburn or acid reflux at least once per week. While occasional heartburn and acid reflux aren’t dangerous, frequent and long-term heartburn (also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD) can lead to cough, laryngitis, ulcers of the esophagus, and conditions such as Barrett’s Esophagus that in some cases can lead to esophageal cancer.
But there's good news for those who suffer from heartburn and acid reflux.
Gastroenterologists say there are ways to help reduce—and even avoid--heartburn, or acid reflux, before they even happen. And prevention doesn’t have to mean sacrifice, just moderation and good planning.
Reflux of stomach acid into the esophagus can cause a burning feeling in the throat and under the breast bone. Heartburn/GERD, otherwise known as acid reflux, is often treated with over-the-counter or prescription medications such as simple antacids, Histamine-2 blockers (H2B) and Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPI), such as Pepcid and Nexium. These medications lower the amount of acid in the stomach and are often taken for the short and longer term depending on the underlying condition.
But there are also other ways to significantly reduce symptoms or avoid the condition altogether. The following are some gastroenterologist-approved tips for reducing or avoiding heartburn this holiday without over-the-counter or prescription medications, and staying healthy into the New Year.
Watch What and How Much You Eat
This holiday season, eat rich, high-calorie, high-acid foods in moderation. It is most important to avoid the foods that contain (or produce) a lot of stomach acid, including:
- Citrus fruits
- Garlic and onions
- Coffee or caffeinated products
- Meals high in fats and oils
- Some medications – ask your doctor
Meals high in fats and oils (both animal and vegetable) often lead to heartburn, as do certain medications such as iron supplements, some antibiotics, and pain relievers like ibuprofen and narcotic pain medicine. See the Mayo Clinic article that includes many medications and supplements that can lead to increased heartburn/GERD symptoms. Stress and lack of sleep can raise how much acid your stomach makes and can cause heartburn. Gastroenterology research indicates that having a hiatal hernia, wherein the upper portion of the stomach moves up into the chest through a small opening in the diaphragm, can allow stomach contents to reflux more easily into the esophagus.
How Do I Prevent Heartburn?
What fun is that, you say? No Latkes. No Christmas Eve lasagna, no candy canes, no chocolate snowmen, no eggnog? We don’t want you to abandon the festivities altogether. Moderation is key.
Most of us moderate heartburn sufferers don’t have to cut out the holiday treats altogether. Lenore Shamah, MS, RE, CDE, Brooklyn nutritionist, advises eating a ratio of 80% healthy foods to 20% holiday treats to stay on a healthy track during the holidays. This ratio works for preventing heartburn during the holidays as well.
Nutritionist Shamah also recommends these behavioral strategies for healthy eating that focus on gut health and heartburn reduction during the holidays:
- Plan ahead-have a healthy snack before leaving for that holiday party so you don’t fill up on fatty, acid-rich hors d'oeuvres.
- Maintain a regular eating schedule-starving yourself after a big holiday meal only upsets your metabolic function and is not a good strategy for heartburn prevention.
- Use portion control-use smaller plates, eat more slowly, and drink lots of water with your meal. These tactics will help fill you up and will help reduce your chances of getting heartburn. Heartburn is much more likely to occur in those who have eaten too fast, or have overeaten their meal.
- Take your time- don’t eat quickly. The stomach does not even tell us its full until 20 minutes into the meal. Chewing food more thoroughly and eating less at eat sitting will significantly reduce the change of an attack of heartburn.
- Make smart dessert decisions-choose fruit, leave off the whipped cream and opt out of empty calorie alcoholic drinks. Alcohol can produce some of the worst stomach acid flare-ups. Take a break and drink a festive “Shirley Temple” non-alcoholic cocktail instead. Our favorite Shirley Temple recipe is ½ club soda, ½ cranberry juice over ice, garnished with a twist of lime. You’ll feel better that night, and the next morning!
- Get active- this is one of the best ways to prevent heartburn after a meal. Getting up and moving after a meal is a great way to ward off heartburn. Take a relaxing stroll around the neighborhood. Go to a nearby park. Walk the dog. Heck, walk the cat if she’s into it!
- If you must stay seated, sit up straight and keep your core working. This will help keep the acid in your stomach, where it’s supposed to be.
- Avoid alcohol consumption – drinking alcohol can aggravate pre-existing symptoms of heartburn, acid reflux and GERD. The more you drink, the greater the risk becomes that you could develop esophageal cancer. Smoking and drinking heighten the risk.
- Focus on friends and family. This, we believe, is the most important tip of all. It goes a long way toward keeping us focused on things that matter. Instead of reaching for your second helping of mashed potatoes and gravy, put down the serving spoon and listen. Listen to your loved ones. Focus on what they’re telling you. You’ll be surprised at how getting out of yourself can help you during the holidays!
What if My Heartburn/GERD Doesn’t Go Away?
While behavioral changes can make a significant difference in the frequency of infrequent heartburn and acid reflux, those with more frequent symptoms of heartburn that could signify GERD should see a gastroenterologist. Medication and/or surgery may be required.
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, when the symptoms of heartburn cannot be controlled by lifestyle changes, and the heartburn sufferer requires over-the-counter medications more than twice a week, it’s time for a visit to the gastroenterologist. Stubborn and persistent heartburn could be GERD, and when not treated, serious complications can occur. These include severe chest pain that mimics a heart attack, esophageal stricture or narrowing, bleeding, pre-malignant changes to the esophageal lining, or Barrett’s esophagus.
An important study published twenty years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine found that patients with chronic, untreated heartburn over many years were at substantially greater risk of developing esophageal cancer, the 19th most common cancer in the U.S. today.
Gastroenterologists in NYC
Drs. William Erber, MD and Jonathan Erber, MD specialize in Gastroenterology and Endoscopy at their offices in Brooklyn, New York. Schedule a consultation with us today to learn more about diet and behavioral ways to prevent heartburn and other digestive health issues.
Dietician in NYC
Lenore Shamah, MS, RE, CDE is a licensed dietician and sees patients regularly in the office of Drs. William and Jonathan Erber.