November 20–26, 2016 is Gastroesophageal Reflux Awareness Week
There’s a month or a week for just about every health condition. Most of the dates seem to be arbitrarily chosen, but when it comes to Gastroesophageal Reflux Awareness Week, it makes sense to “celebrate” around Thanksgiving! That’s the week when many of us experience heartburn—a burning sensation in the chest, behind the breastbone and in the middle of the abdomen.
The International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) sponsors this week to help call attention to symptoms that might mean we’re suffering from more than the usual, temporary heartburn. If symptoms persist and heartburn becomes chronic, or we experience regurgitation, swallowing problems, a sore throat or hoarseness in the morning, we might have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is caused when the contents of the stomach often flow backwards into the esophagus.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), if GERD is left untreated, it can cause chronic inflammation of the esophagus, swallowing problems, lung problems and erosion of the teeth. The NIH reports that GERD may be caused by:
- A hiatal hernia—a condition in which the opening in the diaphragm lets the upper part of the stomach move into the chest
- Pressure on the abdomen from obesity (or, temporarily, pregnancy)
- Certain medications, including those used to treat asthma, high blood pressure, allergies or depression
Statistics also suggest that age-related changes in the digestive tract raise the risk as we grow older.
Says IFFGD president Nancy Norton, “The symptoms of GERD can seem so common that many people do not consult with their healthcare providers or mention them during routine exams.” She warns, “When symptoms often occur two or more times a week or become more severe, it is important to talk to a physician. Left untreated, GERD can lead to complications, or other health problems.”
The IFFGD says that anyone experiencing these symptoms should schedule an appointment with their healthcare provider, and share this information during the appointment:
- A list of when your heartburn occurs (time of day, after meals, etc.) and how often
- The severity of your heartburn
- Other symptoms you are experiencing
- How your symptoms affect your daily activities
- How your symptoms affect your sleep
- What changes in diet and lifestyle choices you have made to relieve your symptoms and how effective this has been in providing relief
- What antacids and other over-the-counter medications you have used and what relief, if any, they have provided
So this Thanksgiving and throughout the holiday season, how can we avoid a case of heartburn that’s sure to put a damper on the festivities? Dr. Juan Carlos Bucobo of Stony Brook University Hospital in New York offers six tips:
- Nibble, don’t hoard. Overeating and eating too fast will increase the chances of heartburn if you are predisposed. Smaller portions separated over time will decrease the chances you will burn in agony. At the main meal, try using a smaller plate and eating slowly.
- Identify the culprits. Certain foods are more likely to worsen GERD and heartburn. These include fatty foods, spicy foods, onions, garlic, caffeine, chocolate, citrus fruits and juices, and mints. So make sure to pass on the deep fried turkey.
- Kick the habit. There’s no reason to wait for New Year’s to start your resolutions and stop smoking. Nicotine reduces the pressure of the muscle between the esophagus and stomach, increasing the likelihood of acid reflux, among other deleterious effects.
- Avoid lying down after a meal. Overeating and alcohol are sure to make you want to snooze after a holiday meal. Resist the urge to lie down within three hours of eating, as it is likely to worsen your heartburn.
- Skip the eggnog. Alcohol, especially in large quantities and particularly red wine, has been implicated in worsening heartburn. If you are going to drink alcohol, do so in moderation.
- Seek help. There are several categories of over-the-counter medications available to ease the burn. When symptoms become frequent, more than 2–3 times per week, visiting a doctor is important in establishing the diagnosis and prescribing the most effective treatment.
Remember: GERD can be treated—and that’s something to be thankful for!