By: Jean Johnson for Reflux1
It’s ramping up already. All the food glossies have those alluring photos of sumptuous delicacies on their covers, and almost everyone’s tossing an extra pound of butter into their shopping carts, along with some cream cheese, powdered sugar and a fat goose or two.
| The National Heartburn Alliance suggests people with heartburn should watch their intake of these holiday favorites: |
‘Tis the season…
But it’s tough to be jolly when you have a burning pain that begins behind the breastbone and moves up toward the throat. More, according to the pros, while a number of factors predispose a person to heartburn or acid reflux, plenty of blame can be heaped on the rich holiday foods cooks love to whip up. And then there’s the alcohol that goes along with it. It’s a wonder our gullets fare as well as they do.
Anatomy and Physiology – Short Course
Unlike the stomach that has a protective lining, our gullets (or the esophageal tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach) are lean and mean – designed strictly for one-way transport.
Therein is the problem. The acid present in the stomach to digest food backs up through the lower esophageal sphincter, a band of muscles that when working properly remains tightly closed and keeps stomach acid where it rightfully belongs.
A number of things cause the sphincter between the stomach and the esophagus to relax. Fatty foods, overeating, too much alcohol, lying down after eating – the list goes on and essentially includes anything that puts too much burden on the gastrointestinal tract or slows down the digestion of food. Consequently, even cultivating the habit of taking a walk after dinner can go a long way in helping food move through the stomach and staving off acid reflux or heartburn.
Said professor of gastroenterology at Emory University School of Medicine, John Affronti, M.D., “We all want a really full stomach by the time the football game comes on. But when you kick back in the La-Z-Boy recliner, you’re tilting the stomach, which allows the stomach acid to spill into the esophagus.”
Gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Braden Kuo, M.D., concurs although he comments on what happens before one reaches the recliner. “At holiday time there is increased use of alcohol, after-dinner mints, desserts and the overstuffing of the GI tract. All these factors can make heartburn worse.”
Heartburn, Stress and Exercise
Additionally a National Heartburn Alliance (NHBA) statement notes that holiday stress and lack of exercise can make significant contributions to rates of acid reflux during the holidays. “Many people like to blame heartburn completely on diet. While there are definitely certain foods that exacerbate heartburn, that’s only part of the story.”
“Stress runs high during the holidays – that’s no surprise. However, it may come as a revelation that stress can affect motility or the movement of food through the digestive system. Motility problems can cause food to move up rather than down the way they should.” Consequently the alliance recommends taking a bit of quiet time now and then. Things like mini-meditation sessions do wonders it says, or even simply taking time to enjoy the light shining on a favorite ornament.
On exercise NHBA sounds like a stern Dutch uncle. “Busy schedules this time of year may result in less exercise. But remember, no matter how tight your schedule, making time for exercise will reap numerous benefits: Improved circulation and digestion, reduced stress, improved focus and mental outlook and burned calories – a definite bonus during the holidays.”
Experts don’t know why the lower esophageal sphincter fails to work properly in some people. A number of factors, though, are considered potential contributors to heartburn. Pregnancy, smoking, eating larger meals especially before reclining, carrying too much weight on our frames, bending a lot and wearing tight clothing that constricts the waist top the list. In essence, the message is try to keep the load as light as possible – and be grateful the Victorian Era of corsets for females is a good century behind us.
Savor the Moment, Become a Gourmet
Over and again, the key to managing heartburn, say the pros, is to savor, not stuff. To eat like a gourmet and truly appreciate all the work and bounty that goes into holiday fare. So, the trick is to think French and be gourmet not a glutton. That way when we pop a morsel of rich cheese in our mouths, we can be one with moment and have a food experience. With that kind of savoring, eating smaller portions and using small plates and all the other tips we hear will become second nature.
Author of “Tell Me What to Eat if I Have Acid Reflux” Elaine Magee, M.P.H., R.D., agrees that coming at the problem of excess is better through the back door. “I don’t want to constantly remind myself that I’m supposed to lose weight, or that I’m overweight, or that I have to regulate myself. I believe in eating when you are hungry, stopping when you’re comfortable. That leaves room for enjoyment.”
Magee adds that “it’s hard but once you get used to eating only until you’re full, [you find that] it becomes much easier to stop at those holiday meals. You don’t like that uncomfortable feeling anymore.”
Sounds like good advice to us - everything in moderation.