Friday, November 18, 2011

Prevention Spotlight: Tips for Reducing Heartburn

Heartburn.  Most of us have experienced this uncomfortable symptom after a heavy, fatty meal or perhaps after a few cups of strong coffee.  Some patients complain of burning belly pain. Others say they feel a sensation that food is stuck behind their chest.


In terms of treatment, many patients don’t know or realize how important certain diet and lifestyle changes can be in terms of controlling and eliminating symptoms of reflux.  Here are my tips for reducing that uncomfortable fiery sensation within:

Trash those Marlboro Lights:

Tobacco not only increases the acid produced by the stomach but it also plays a role in weakening the muscles that allow food to pass from the esophagus into the stomach, resulting in reflux. If that’s not a good enough reason to quit, the risk of lung cancer should be.

Instead of buying larger jeans, buy a gym membership:

If you are overweight, by making the right dietary choices and incorporating exercise into your life, you could eliminate heartburn entirely. That should be good motivation to start power walking, switch from butter to olive oil and cut back on your cookie intake.

You don’t need a post-dinner dinner:

And when I say this, I mean you should make a habit of stopping eating approximately 2 hours before sleeping or lying down. Obviously don’t go to bed starving. It’s fine to have a light snack if you are hungry. But don’t load up on a plate of fettuccine alfredo at midnight just because you feel like it.

Bigger isn’t always better:

Heartburn is worsened by larger, heavier meals. Instead, try eating smaller meals more frequently. The best foods for this ailment are high in fiber and low in fat.

Instead of spending your money on an extra coffee, take a vacation:

If you save an extra 2 dollars on coffee per day for a year, you’d have enough money to buy yourself a round trip ticket to Ibiza. And in the process, your heartburn would improve. Caffeinated beverages such as coffee and tea (yes decaf is bad for heartburn too) can make your symptoms worse.

Chew some fruity gum:

I highly recommend Trident Tropical Twist but that’s just me.  Stay away from peppermint flavors.  The increased saliva production from gum chewing assists peristalsis so that the food moves from the stomach into the small intestine in a more timely fashion.

Don't be a masochist:

It may sound ridiculous, but putting pressure on your abdomen by wearing pants that are tighter than Saran Wrap or buckling your belt an extra 2 inches for fashionista effect can actually worsen heartburn. Those "way-too-tight-for-you" jeans you just picked up are cute and all but if they are causing the contents of your stomach to splash into your esophagus, you may want to rethink your purchase.

Sadly, some ingredients we all love fit under the “avoid” category when it comes to heartburn. Things like chocolate, citrus fruits, tomato products, onions, garlic, mint, pepper (chili and black), alcohol and carbonated drinks all can exacerbate heartburn.

Even some very commonly used medications such as Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), Naproxen and Aspirin can worsen the symptoms of heartburn. Tylenol is a great alternative to pain control if you don't have other contra-indications like liver disease.

But there is good news. Some delicious foods are heartburn fighting! High fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts and whole grains are good for heartburn. When at the grocery store, try buying oatmeal, bananas, ginger (ginger tea and using ginger in food while cooking), whole wheat pasta for high fiber intake (no heavy buttery sauces or tomato based sauces though…use light sauces with broth-like consistency to alleviate heartburn), applesauce (alone or substituting this in recipes in an equivalent amount when baking can help your symptoms), non citrus juices, low fat or skim milk- these items are all heartburn-friendly!

It is important to note that many patients can achieve a symptom-free state by lifestyle and dietary modifications alone.

That being said, we are only human and will find ourselves having that glass of Cabernet, that plate of fried calamari or that triple Venti Latte on occasion.  If you know that certain foods produce heartburn, and you are not willing to forego them, don’t be a hero and suffer through your symptoms.  First of all, it’s not fun.  And secondly, over time, repetitive bouts of heartburn can lead to damage of the cells lining the esophagus and other complications that are much better avoided. 

There are medications that may be able to help you, both over the counter and prescription, which are used to treat heartburn such as antacids, proton pump inhibitors and H2-blockers.

It is important that you talk to your health care provider if you think you are experiencing symptoms of heartburn, especially if it is a frequent occurrence (more than twice a week), so that he or she can proceed with a plan that is best suited for you.

For more information about heartburn, please visit the National Institutes of Health website:


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