Reduce 'holiday heartburn,' make wise food choices

The holidays invite excessive eating. But once the turkey, ham and all the trimmings are consumed, many are stricken with a distinct discomfort in their bellies or chest, a feeling probably caused by acid reflux.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or acid reflux, is a common and chronic digestive condition brought on by a weakened lower esophageal sphincter -- the valve between the stomach and esophagus -- that allows stomach acid to back up, or reflux, into the esophagus.

Heartburn is the No. 1 symptom. Other symptoms include chest pain, problems swallowing, sore throat, coughing and wheezing, according to the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy.

An estimated 30 million Americans suffer from acid reflux. Making smart choices during the holiday eating frenzy will minimize problems, say two physicians in Naples, Fla.

Gastroenterologist Shardul Nanavati and neurologist David Perlmutter, an American College of Nutrition fellow, suggest avoiding certain types of food and drinks:

Fatty foods: Rich, fatty foods are a major culprit. Too much fat slows the process of food digesting and exiting the stomach. Heavier foods sit in your stomach longer and require more acid for digestion, Nanavati said. Stay away from heavy casseroles, gravy, stuffing and fried items.

High carbohydrate foods: Perlmutter said carbs decrease stomach acidity. With less acid, the valve that lets the stomach empty to the intestine doesn't open as widely. This leads the stomach to become overfull and causes acid reflux. Pass on the mashed potatoes and high-carb desserts, such as cakes and cookies.

Alcohol: Too much stomach acid can trigger reflux. Alcohol increases acid secretions, Nanavati said. A glass of wine or Champagne won't hurt. But the more you drink, the more chances of symptoms.

Carbonated beverages: Sodas and anything with carbonation increases stomach acids. They have a direct link to gastric distention, a condition that brings on reflux.

Citric foods: Citrus fruits and others that have the acid for flavoring and preserving are also trouble. Citric acid causes reflux because the stomach -- but not the esophagus -- is designed to withstand the additional acid from citrus foods. So steer clear of cranberry sauce.

Caffeine and chocolate: "Those things tend to irritate the valve that goes into the stomach and make it less efficient at its job," Perlmutter said. Think twice about that after-dinner coffee and chocolate petits fours.

Some foods may help reduce reflux, Perlmutter said. He recommends eating "good fats," such as those found in as extra virgin olive oil, avocado, coconut oil, grass-fed beef and fish, which has healthy Omega-3 fats.

"Good fats open the valve and allows the stomach to empty," he said.

Reflux sufferers can modify their behavior to keep their digestive systems in fine form for festivities.

Eat less: "People tend to overeat and over drink," Nanavati said. "We try to tell people to consume in moderation." Enjoy that holiday ham, but don't gorge on seconds and thirds.

Eat earlier: Try to eat at least three to four hours before bedtime. "Often times dinner and parties go late into the night, and that's a big setup for reflux troubles," Perlmutter said.

Take your time: Studies have shown that people get more heartburn when they eat quickly. Slow down, linger and savor that delicious holiday meal.

Get up: After a big meal, forgo plopping on the couch. Instead, take a walk or start your own football game with family and friends.

Stay elevated: If the L-tryptophan in that turkey makes you sleepy and you must lie down, Perlmutter suggests elevating your head 6 to 8 inches.

"It helps keep food from regurgitating and enhances the motion of food moving to the intestine," he said.

Joanna Chau is a reporter for the Naples Daily News in Florida

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