Between now and New Year’s Day we put a terrible strain on our stomachs. Holiday parties and family feasts mean overindulgence: rich food and too much of it.
For millions of people this means heartburn. The new fangled term is acid reflux, also known as GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease).
What this means in practical terms is that stomach acid splashes up into the esophagus, producing pain, burning and even scarring of the food tube. Experts estimate that 100 million Americans experience heartburn every month.
Humans have suffered from indigestion since recorded time. Centuries ago, doctors called it dyspepsia, from Greek words meaning hard to digest.
Although the ancient Greeks may have overindulged in wine and other delicacies during holiday feasts, normally they ate a very sensible Mediterranean diet. There was no fast food, no hot donuts, cheese pizza or chocolate pie. Americans, on the other hand, eat on the run and frequently choose foods that aggravate heartburn.
The most popular solution is to pop a pill. The manufacturers of acid-suppressing medicines like Prilosec, Prevacid and Nexium (the purple pill) reinforce this approach.
There are, however, other ways to reduce heartburn without potent medications. Diet does matter. Some people find that cutting back on carbohydrates helps. We have heard from readers of this column that the Atkins diet was surprisingly beneficial in reducing chronic reflux: “I lost my heartburn, even before the weight came off. I no longer need to take antacids.”
A preliminary report in the medical literature documents other cases of acid reflux disappearing on a carbohydrate-restricted diet (Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine Nov.-Dec. 2001).
Some people find that particular foods give them grief. Tomatoes, salsa, soft drinks, coffee (even decaf), tea and orange juice are common culprits. Using a product like Prelief (calcium glycerophosphate) can reduce the acid in the foods without affecting stomach acid.
Others find that simple antacids relieve their discomfort. Old-fashioned calcium carbonate (Chooz, Maalox Quick Dissolve or Tums) usually works quite well for occasional indigestion. So does baking soda, for that matter. Half a teaspoon in four ounces of water is a time-honored recipe for heartburn.
Some people find home remedies do the trick. Chewing on gum or sucking on hard candy can stimulate the flow of saliva. Two decades ago, an article in The New England Journal of Medicine (Feb 2, 1984) showed that this tactic helps rinse and buffer acid in the esophagus. Since then other studies have confirmed that chewing sugarless gum for 30 minutes after a meal can help ease acid reflux.
We offer more information on treating heartburn in our Guide to Digestive Disorders.
As challenging as it may be, eating sensibly during the holidays could be the best solution for reducing holiday heartburn. When all else fails, though, simple remedies can bring quick relief.