If you overindulge in rich foods and free-flowing alcohol this holiday season beware that warm, fuzzy feeling – it may be related less to your merriment than to the after-effects of heartburn, indigestion and acid reflux – all of which, if untreated, can lead to painful symptoms and serious problems.
Heartburn is aptly named for the pain that occurs in your chest when stomach acid backs up into your esophagus. It commonly strikes after eating or at night, and the pain may intensify when you lie down or bend over. Foods that exacerbate heartburn include alcohol, chocolate, coffee, high-fat or fried foods, and acidic fruits, juices and condiments. The burning sensation in your chest may be accompanied by a sour taste in your mouth.
Heartburn is a symptom, usually of gastritis. But the underlying cause may be more serious, such as a peptic ulcer or hiatal hernia. Chronic heartburn and reflux may signal that you have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
You may experience heartburn along with indigestion, but they are not one and the same. Indigestion, simply put, is an upset stomach – usually marked by belching, bloating and nausea. It can be triggered by any number of variables, including eating too much or too quickly; eating fatty foods; consuming too much alcohol, caffeine or chocolate; drinking too many carbonated beverages; or emotional upset and nervousness.
While the term “acid reflux” is sometimes used interchangeably with GERD, it is more accurate to say that acid reflux is the milder form of GERD. Acid reflux is the backward flow of stomach acid into the esophagus, characterized by a sour taste in the mouth or a burning in the throat. When acid reflux becomes severe, it is usually referred to as GERD.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is characterized by two or more episodes weekly of acid reflux and heartburn that interfere with your daily life. With GERD, you may experience heartburn and acid reflux as well as chest pain, difficulty swallowing, a dry cough, hoarseness and the sensation of having a lump in your throat. If your heartburn is frequent and persistent, you may have GERD. Untreated GERD can lead to greater risk for esophageal cancer.
If you’re overweight, your reflux may be triggered by excess belly fat pushing up on your stomach, which prevents it from emptying. A hiatal hernia – when part of your stomach pushes up through your diaphragm – can also be an underlying cause for GERD.
You’re in pain, but you’ve got to eat. Take heart. Alleviating the pain is possible if you take the necessary steps.
There are changes you can make to your daily routine to reduce the frequency and severity of your heartburn, indigestion or GERD symptoms. They include:
- Wearing comfortable, loose-fitting clothing that doesn’t cinch your waist;
- Avoiding foods that trigger heartburn;
- Waiting at least three after a meal before retiring for the night;
- Eating less at night;
- Elevating your head at bedtime; and
- Quitting smoking, which decreases the lower esophageal sphincter’s ability to function correctly.
Medications also are available to help control symptoms of heartburn, indigestion and GERD. Over-the-counter antacids such as Tums and Rolaids offer quick relief by neutralizing stomach acid. H-2 receptor blockers – which include brand-name medications such as Tagamet, Pepcid and Zantac – offer longer-lasting relief, but aren’t as fast-acting as antacids. Proton pump inhibitors – known by the brand name Prevacid and Prilosec – block acid production and in doing so, allow the esophagus’ damaged tissue to heal.
If over-the-counter medications just aren’t cutting it with your symptoms, talk to your health care provider about prescription options to get your heartburn and acid reflux under control.