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Tackling Holiday Heartburn

Holiday feasts are close to our hearts, all those favorite comfort foods. But why make heartburn part of the yearly tradition? Here's a game plan for tackling indigestion head-on.
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WebMD Feature

Americans celebrate with food and lots of it. Those big holiday dinners, the parties, happy hours, and shopping sprees -- we love that stuff.

So what's the problem? It's a big fat recipe for a bad case of heartburn. Alcohol, caffeine, -- plus eating too much rich, fatty food - is a slippery slope to indigestion. The holiday dinner is especially a problem. Once you've stuffed yourself, then moved to the couch, you're in trouble.

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"We all want a really full stomach by the time the football game comes on," says John Affronti, MD, a professor of gastroenterology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "But when you kick back in the La-Z-Boy recliner, you're tilting the stomach - which allows stomach acid to spill into the esophagus."

You know the result -- that slow-burning feeling that works its way upward. It's acid reflux, better known as heartburn. Sleeping With Heartburn Carries Cancer Risks.

The Mechanics of Heartburn

Heartburn is partly a mechanical problem, Affronti explains. There's a little muscle that controls all of this that sits between the esophagus and the stomach. That muscle gradually relaxes as we get older -- which means stomach acid has easier access to the esophagus.

When we're standing, gravity helps keep stomach acid from migrating upward. But when we go horizontal -- and especially when a full stomach is applying internal pressure -- stomach acid gets pushed into the esophagus. Extra pounds around your waistline only add to that internal pressure.

Also, excess fatty food means digestion slows to a crawl, which makes heartburn a virtual certainty, explains Affronti.

Taming the Heartburn Beast

Run-of-the-mill heartburn is easy to treat, says Braden Kuo, MD, a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

"This is particularly relevant at holiday times, where there is increased use of alcohol, after-dinner mints, desserts, and the overstuffing of the GI tract," he tells WebMD. "All these factors can make heartburn worse. There's nothing wrong with treating it more aggressively with OTC or prescription medicines during those times."

For best results, take your heartburn medicine before heartburn starts - before sitting down to that big holiday meal or heading to the party buffet, he advises. You have a lot of options from which to choose:

Here are some over-the-counter heartburn medicines:

  • Antacids like Tums and Rolaids neutralize stomach acid to relieve heartburn, sour stomach, acid indigestion, and stomach upset. These include Tums, Rolaids, and Maalox.
  • Acid blockers reduce the production of stomach acid. They include Axid AR, Pepcid AC, Prilosec OTC, Tagamet HB, and Zantac 75.

For severe heartburn that isn't relieved by these medications -- or for anyone who has been using them for more than two weeks -- prescription medicine may be necessary. The prescription forms of Axid, Pepcid, Prilosec, Tagamet, and Zantac contain higher doses than the OTC versions. Prescription versions of Prevacid and Nexium, as well as others, are also effective.

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