The holiday season is here. With Christmas and New Year just around the corner, it’s only a matter of time before your dining table is filled with a lot of delicious food and delectable treats once again. What’s more exciting is that you can also expect some special recipes on the table that your family would otherwise prepare on normal occasions.

As soon as everyone is ready to dig in, your excited self would probably pick up a big plate, get a portion of all the foods served on the table, and finish off everything regardless of how full you are. You aren’t done yet because you realize that there’s still a special dessert waiting for you to try. So, you grab a new plate and a spoon and get some of that creamy buko salad you’ve been craving all year long. Once you’re done eating, you take a break, sit on the couch, and enjoy a bottle of alcohol with your siblings. The next thing you know, you’re feeling this burning sensation in your chest. What could have possibly happened? Chances are, you are experiencing heartburn.

What is heartburn?

Heartburn is a burning feeling in the chest that can move up to the neck or throat. It is not in itself a disease but a symptom that occurs when stomach acid travels up towards the throat (acid reflux). It can also be a symptom of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), a chronic and more severe form of reflux.

Heartburn can be caused by a lot of things. For many people, it can occur after eating large amounts of food. It can also be triggered by eating fatty and greasy foods and alcoholic beverages, to name a few. Both causes are commonly observed during holiday celebrations, making the holiday a prime time for someone to experience heartburn.

Although heartburn is not life-threatening, the discomfort that it brings can spoil your eating experience. Combined with indigestion and its other uncomfortable symptoms, heartburn can potentially ruin your holiday celebration.

Tips to Prevent Heartburn

This year, don’t let heartburn or any other digestive dysfunction wreak havoc on your holiday. Here are what you need to know about how to prevent it and, more importantly, enjoy the annual tradition of food:

1. Eat small portion sizes

Eating an excessive amount of food in one sitting is the main contributor to holiday heartburn. The more food you cram into your stomach, the more pressure you put on your lower esophageal sphincter (LES) - the muscle that prevents the backflow of stomach contents into the esophagus. When the pressure is too high, food and acid will flow back up, causing heartburn.

Avoid overeating by keeping your portion sizes small and spreading your food intake throughout the day. A great trick that you can do to practice portion control is to use smaller plates (i.e. appetizer plate) as your main meal plate. This can help trick your brain into thinking you’re full. Studies have shown that individuals who eat a full plate of food — even if their plate is smaller — feel fuller than those who only fill their plate up halfway.

2. Limit intake of food triggers

Several foods and drinks can trigger heartburn by causing the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) to relax abnormally. LES normally relaxes to let the food you ate pass from your mouth to the stomach, then tightens again to keep the stomach content down where it belongs.

When LES relaxes abnormally, due to certain food triggers, it fails to tighten as it should, and causes the stomach acid to travel back up from the stomach into the esophagus.

Heartburn triggers can differ from person to person, but the most common ones include fatty or greasy foods, chocolate, alcohol, carbonated beverages, citrus foods, and spicy foods. Most of these food triggers are usually served during holiday celebrations, so make sure to watch out for these food items and try to avoid or limit your intake as much as possible, especially if you are suffering from GERD.

3. Don’t go to bed immediately after eating

When we're standing, gravity helps keep stomach acid from flowing upward. But when we go horizontal, stomach acid gets pushed into the esophagus. This is more likely to happen when you lie down immediately after eating a large amount of food.

Give yourself at least three hours between your last meal and your bedtime. This will give your stomach time to digest food properly. Better yet, go for a walk after your meal. Even a short 10-minute walk can aid digestion.

If you ever have to lie down and rest immediately after eating, try to elevate your head at night by using a few more pillows, or a wedge pillow. This way, you reduce the amount of acid able to travel back up your esophagus and prevent reflux.

4. Don’t wear tight-fitting clothes

You probably sport your best outfit during holiday gatherings to feel the holiday vibe and look good in your annual holiday photos. But more than the style, you might want to consider the comfort of your outfit, especially when you know that you’re eating more food than usual.

Do not wear tight clothing around your abdomen as it might force acid into your esophagus. As much as possible, do not wear tight belts and waistbands too.

5. Have over-the-counter medicines ready

The first and most ideal way to avoid experiencing heartburn is to follow the basic lifestyle changes mentioned above, but sometimes, despite your best efforts, you still end up falling into the trap of overindulgence. Fortunately, there are over-the-counter medications available that may provide relief and even prevent it.

Popular OTC medications for heartburn include antacids, H2 blockers, and Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs). Antacids work to neutralize stomach acid and offer relief almost immediately after intake. H2 blockers, on the other hand, help reduce the actual amount of acid produced in your stomach, although they're most effective when taken an hour before eating. PPIs, like H2 blockers, also reduce the amount of acid produced by your stomach. However, PPIs and H2 blockers are not intended for immediate relief of heartburn, as they may take one to four days for full effect.

Talk to your pharmacist before taking acid reducers, especially if you are also taking other prescription drugs. In addition, if your heartburn symptoms persist even after taking the medicines mentioned above, it is best to talk to a doctor.

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