Christmas is a time of eating more food than normal, with more high fat foods and alcohol that we’d normally eat. In addition we tend to move less, and slumped on the sofa after large meals we’re more at risk of acid reflux, better known as heartburn. So what can you do to protect yourself this Christmas?
What is acid reflux?
When you eat food it travels from your mouth, down the oesophagus to the stomach. This is a one way system and nothing should come back up this tube.
There is a small band of muscle, the sphincter, stopping food from re-entering the oesophagus. If this sphincter relaxes then food or stomach acid can re-enter the tube, which causes pain.
Our stomach acid has a really important job to help us digest food and keep out toxins and bacteria we don’t want entering the body.
In the UK it’s thought up to 25% of people experience heartburn regularly, so it’s a common condition, but that doesn’t mean it’s normal!
Signs of heartburn
A burning pain in your chest after eating, which is often worse at night, could indicate heartburn. For some people it’s increased when they bend down.
If you have recurrent heartburn (more than twice a week) make sure you see a doctor because the acid can inflame the oesophagus and cause damage.
Having chest pain can also indicate you’re having a heart attack, so seek medical advice if you also have pain in your left arm, any difficulty breathing, or any other symptoms which worry you.
What causes heartburn at Christmas?
Generally our risk of reflux is increased with smoking, poor diet, poor digestion, stress, obesity and in pregnancy.
At Christmas it’s often the food we eat which triggers the acid reflux. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Large meals – a big amount of food will take longer to leave the stomach, increasing the risk of food being pushing back up the oesophagus
- Christmas spirits (and all booze) – Alcohol, chocolate, tea and coffee can all reduce the pressure on the sphincter. This can make the ring of muscle relax causing acid to flow back into the oesophagus. Alcohol also increases the amount of stomach acid produced.
- Christmas pudding and fatty meat – fat delays digestion, meaning food will sit in the stomach for longer
- Fizzy drinks – this will reduce the pressure of the sphincter causing bubbled to escape upwards.
- Salty snacks – salted peanuts and crisps can increase the frequency of heartburn for some people
- Slouching after a big meal – helping clear up the meal will keep you upright, so there is less chance of your food pushing back up. When we lounge back the full stomach will increase pressure on the oesophageal sphincter. So stay active in the kitchen after dinner!
How to prevent Christmas heartburn
- Eat smaller meals – avoiding over stuffing your tummy to prevent the push back
- Avoid common triggers – chocolate, tomatoes, citrus foods, onions, coffee and alcohol
- Avoid peppermint tea before bed, it relaxes your sphincter to allow burps to come back up, but can lead to heartburn
- Take a break in between meals – allow your food to go down rather than grazing all day
- Stay upright – sit up tall or walk around after meals to avoid the risk of acid leaking up in the oesophagus
- Sleep lying on your left side – this can help for some people who experience pain at night
- Avoid eating for 3 hours before bed to allow the food to go down before you get horizontal.
Hi I'm Anna Mapson, registered Nutritionist (mBANT, CNHC). I help people with IBS, gut health and digestive issues.
I can help you to:
- understand your digestion better, so you recognise your triggers
- eat a well balanced diet, with tasty meals that are simple to prepare
- develop healthy, sustainable habits for life
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To find more about 1:1 nutrition consultations or my group membership see my IBS Diet support page