The holiday season is a time of family gatherings, exciting travel, busy schedules, and special foods as we celebrate the traditions and joys of this special time of the year. But it is also a season that you may find yourself out of your normal routines, and that can be a recipe for an unpleasant holiday guest—gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Also called heartburn and acid reflux, GERD is no fun. It can keep you up at night, make it hard to enjoy holiday meals, and even lead to problematic health problems if left untreated. Fortunately, you can lessen the likelihood that GERD will show up at your holiday activities. Here are some tips for doing so, and some facts that will help you manage acid reflux better, any time of the year.
Before you can begin to manage GERD, it helps to understand what it is and why it flares up at times like the holidays. Gastroesophageal reflux disease occurs when stomach acid moves up into the esophagus (the tube that connects your mouth with the stomach). This happens because the esophageal sphincter has weakened due to exposure to stomach acid, a hernia, or other health concerns.
As this acidic stomach content moves into the throat, it creates a burning sensation and other symptoms that are hard to ignore, and may have you reaching for medications that can bring relief.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, an estimated 20 percent of people across the U.S. deal with gastroesophageal reflux. While an occasional experience of heartburn or acid reflux is not all that unusual, especially when we change up our routines and eating habits, more frequent heartburn is problematic. The regular exposure of your esophagus to stomach acid can do damage that leads to further issues.
So, if you are having symptoms of acid reflux often—especially if it is happening once or twice a week or more—it is important to get medical guidance to protect your health. It is also a good idea to consult a physician if heartburn has started to become a recent problem, or if you are experiencing worsening symptoms.
As you plan for the excitement of the holidays, keep an eye out for signs you may be experiencing gastroesophageal reflux. The most obvious symptom is the one people talk about most often—the burning sensation in your chest that can signal a bout of heartburn. Also be aware that other symptoms of GERD include:
Also, be aware that GERD symptoms may flare up at night, even if you do not experience them immediately after eating.
It is no surprise that having symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux would be an especially annoying issue during the holiday season. And unfortunately, acid reflux can crop up more often during this time of the year for several reasons.
For example, traveling may mean eating at different times of the day than we are used to. We might end up eating foods that are not the healthiest for us, such as fast food meals. And once we attend parties and holiday dinners, we may find ourselves overindulging in food and alcohol, eating too many sweets, or treating ourselves to fatty foods.
Plus, the added stress of travel and holiday planning, as well as a lack of sleep and a lack of exercise because of a busy holiday schedule, can add to any health issues we have—including reflux.
You may be wondering at this point how heartburn can be prevented. The positive news is that you can certainly make choices that help you to lessen the chances of reflux, and to better manage symptoms of GERD. Here are some suggestions backed by medical science:
Some foods can make reflux a lot worse. And during the holidays, it can be tempting to choose those foods. Know that if you have been diagnosed with gastric reflux, your ongoing symptoms can lead to further health issues, such as esophageal cancer. To help prevent acid reflux, do not eat foods and drinks that trigger it.
Common “reflux-causing” foods include fatty foods, alcohol, chocolate, caffeine, and peppermint. You may have other triggers too, so if you know a certain food or drink tends to give you heartburn, avoid it.
While it is tempting to have a taste of everything at the holiday table, keep in mind when you eat too much in one sitting, you can make gastroesophageal reflux symptoms worse. Make a small, reasonably sized plate of food. Sit at the table, relax, and enjoy your surroundings rather than eating on your feet.
Chew slowly and thoroughly to help your food digest before it hits your stomach—this will help lessen the amount of acid in your stomach, and also can help you feel fuller sooner, so you are not tempted to eat too much.
Avoid tight-fitting clothing. We know that it can be tempting to wear a specific outfit during the holidays, but do not do that if the outfit does not give your body room to move and stretch. Constricted clothing, which can become tighter when you eat big meals, can also contribute to pushing stomach contents up into your esophagus.
Do your best to manage your holiday schedule so that you do not have to eat right before going to bed. Your stomach benefits from having at least three hours between a meal and bedtime. If you want to relax after eating, do so sitting up instead of napping on the couch.
Sleeping with your head elevated can help prevent reflux or ease its symptoms. If you are traveling, consider ways to do this even when you are not at home, such as by using several pillows. Keep up an exercise routine. Even a short walk a couple of times a day is better than not exercising at all.
If you take medication to treat GERD already, be sure to renew any prescriptions and take enough with you when traveling so you have a few extra days of medicine should your traveling get delayed. If you do not take medication but are concerned you may have GERD, see your doctor before the holidays for more health information. There are many choices, including H2 blockers, that manage stomach acid and provide relief.
If you are experiencing symptoms of GERD, you do not have to continue to suffer in silence. There are many treatments available, depending on your personal situation, and it is a good idea to address your concerns sooner rather than later. Remember, too, that GERD symptoms may mask other concerns, such as heart disease/heart attack, a hiatal hernia, and gallbladder disease, so getting a proper medical assessment is important.
Reach out to our caring, compassionate health care team anytime to schedule a consultation. We are here to help you enjoy greater wellness—during the holidays and all year-round.