Eggnog, roasts, mashed potatoes—holiday season is practically synonymous with rich, indulgent foods. Unfortunately, in certain individuals, all that indulgent feasting can provoke flare-ups of heartburn.
“Diet plays a very important role in contributing to heartburn,” says gastroenterologist Bruce D. Greenwald of the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center and chairman of the Esophageal Cancer Action Network (ECAN). “The biggest triggers of heartburn are overeating and the consumption of greasy, fatty foods.”
According to Dr. Greenwald, heartburn refers to any general burning sensation in the chest or top of the abdomen. Heartburn that occurs frequently and interferes with your routine is considered gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. GERD is a common condition, afflicting up to 20 percent of the U.S. population.
Is heartburn a cause for alarm? In most cases, heartburn is merely a vexing discomfort that can be remedied by over-the-counter medications (such as antiacids) or lifestyle modifications. But in roughly 10% of heartburn sufferers, reflux can cause potentially dangerous complications, including a pre-cancerous condition known as Barrett’s Esophagus which, left untreated, can progress into esophageal cancer.
For that reason, Dr. Greenwald strongly encourages anyone who experiences frequent or severe heartburn to consult a healthcare provider. “In some cases, frequent heartburn can cause damage that can progress to cancer,” he says.
Eating and drinking are inevitable this time of year, but there are a number of lifestyle strategies you can employ to lessen your risk of suffering that dreaded burn. Below, Dr. Greenwald shares his top tips for warding off heartburn and GERD symptoms during the holiday season.
1. Steer clear of late-night meals. “Eating a lot close to bedtime will worsen heartburn,” Dr. Greenwald notes. “If you’re at a Christmas party, try to enjoy rich foods earlier in the evening and then switch to lighter fare for the rest of the party.”
2. Stay upright after eating. This reduces the risk of acid creeping up your esophagus. “Don’t lie down after eating—take a walk instead,” Dr. Greenwald suggests.
3. Cut back on booze. “Enjoy alcohol in moderation,” Dr. Greenwald says. To drink less, you might consider alternating every alcoholic beverage with a glass of water, or switch to sparkling water after a drink or two.
4. Reduce portion sizes. “Use a smaller plate to trick you into not overeating,” Dr Greenwald recommends.
5. Chew gum. It’s not just a way to freshen breath; gum may also be a remedy for heartburn. The act of chewing gum stimulates saliva production, which can soothe the esophagus and help move acid down into the stomach.
Bottom line? The holiday season shouldn’t be about deprivation and restriction. It’s okay to enjoy some of mom’s decadent casserole dish, but stick to just a small portion of it.
“We want everybody to enjoy the holidays, but you won’t enjoy the holidays as much if you’re suffering with heartburn,” Dr. Greenwald says. “Following some of these measures will let you enjoy them but also stay healthy at the same time.”