Indigestion and/or heartburn is a weekly occurrence for about one in five of us. It’s that burning, painful and uncomfortable feeling we get at the top of the abdomen after eating. It’s technical name is Acid reflux or GORD (Gastro Oesophageal Reflux Disease), which is a more scientific way to describe heartburn.
Symptoms of heartburn include: burning pain, irritation, nausea, coughing (or just clearing the throat especially after eating), wheezing, asthma symptoms and eroded tooth enamel. Unfortunately, heartburn also increases your chances of oesophageal cancer.
Who’s at risk?
People who are overweight or older tend to be affected more since abdominal fat interferes with oesophagus function. Plus, the oesophageal sphincter, which prevents the backup of acid, weakens with age.
Tackling the causes
Here’s what you can do to minimise the acid reflux which causes that sharp burning sensation.
- Avoid eating a huge, heavy dinner within two hours of going to bed. Steer clear of greasy, spicy and fatty foods which can relax the sphincter between your stomach and oesophagus, so allowing food back up. Aim to eat by 8pm so you can head to bed around 10pm.
- Aim to eat “small and often”. Be more of a grazer than three solid meals a day.
- Stay upright, for at least an hour, after eating. This reduces the risk of acid creeping up into your oesophagus. You'll also want to avoid bending over, or lifting heavy objects.
- Lose excess weight, especially if it’s around your abdomen. Just a little will help. Weight loss will reduce the pressure on your stomach and so reduce any heartburn.
- Exercise regularly. A daily walk of 30+ minutes is a great start, as well as anything else above this that you can manage. Swimming, a gym workout, bicycling or dancing are all great. However, don't do any vigorous exercise directly after a meal - something your mother would have told you.
- Give up smoking. In addition to setting the scene for heart disease and lung disease, smoking can aggravate your heartburn and indigestion.
- Learn to meditate. This helps you to reduce your stress levels and stop your mind unravelling. There is a strong link between stress levels and our general gut health. Eat slowly, chewing your food well. When you eat, make a conscious effort to sit down and relax.
- Cut down on caffeine. Reduce your intake of coffee, tea and cola drinks as they’re all heartburn triggers, especially on an empty stomach.
- Avoid carbonated drinks, which are often acidic and therefore aggravating e.g. fizzy drinks, cola drinks and mineral waters.
- Raise the height of your bed if you're a night time refluxer. When you lay flat in bed, your throat and stomach are at the same level, making it easy for stomach acid to flow up your oesophagus, and cause heartburn. Use a thick, wedge-shaped pillow so it raises your entire upper body, not just your head. Or raise the top of your bed by placing 10-15cm (4- 6 inch) blocks/bricks under the legs at the head end of the bed – your aim is to sleep at a slight angle downwards.
- Talk to your doctor about the medications you take. Some medications may cause, or worsen, heartburn, including NSAIDs, some osteoporosis drugs, some heart and blood pressure drugs, some hormone medications, some asthma medications, and some depression medications. Just as everyone's food triggers for heartburn can be different, so it is with medication triggers.
The bottom line
Never ignore persistent heartburn. Left untreated, chronic acid reflux can scar and narrow your oesophagus. At its worst, untreated chronic heartburn -- a symptom of GORD -- can develop into oesophageal cancer.
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