Do you suffer from acid reflux? Here’s how to get rid of heartburn this Christmas and how to stop yourself from getting it in the first place
We’ve all been there. Maybe you went too heavy on the Quality Streets last year or maybe you just seriously overindulged.
Heartburn – or that feeling of your chest on fire can easily ruin your Christmas fun. But how does it happen and how can we avoid it? We spoke to experts about that dreaded firey feeling, how to prevent it and how to make it go away – fast.
Dr Tony Tham, deputy chair of the British Society of Gastroenterology Clinical Services puts it simply. ‘Heartburn happens when acid is produced in the stomach and it refluxes or backs up into the oesophagus (the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach), the condition is called acid reflux. The medical term for this is gastroesophageal reflux disease.’
Who can get heartburn?
While everyone is capable of having it, Dr Tham reveals some individuals are slightly more at risk. ‘Being overweight especially around the waist is a risk factor for reflux.
The presence of a hiatus hernia is also a risk factor. This is a condition whereby the hole in the diaphragm is too large and the top part of the stomach pokes into the chest.
Reflux can occur in up to half of all pregnancies. Specific foods such as fat, chocolate, peppermint, caffeine, alcohol and smoking can cause reflux.
Some drugs such as anticholinergics, nitrates, calcium channel blockers, tricyclic antidepressants, opioids, theophylline, diazepam, barbiturates can cause reflux. And even stress can aggravate reflux.’
Phew! That is a pretty exhaustive list. And nutritionist Rick Hay agrees that stress can have a huge impact (which is especially relevant at this time of year with all of that Christmas shopping). ‘Everyone is able to get it. It often happens if you’re a bit run down. Being stressed will increase your susceptibility towards it.’
If you eat the wrong foods for your body and end up overindulging (as we’re sure we all will), you might be susceptible to a burning chest and a whole load of discomfort.
Here are the foods to look out for and the expert advice on how to deal with your symptoms.
What foods will give me heartburn?
Gastrointestinal specialist dietitian, Adele Nichol from the Ulster Hospital in Belfast explained that over Christmas there are few things we should pay special attention to, one being portion size.
‘Eating larger meals than usual with lots of courses might exacerbate heartburn,’ she explained, ‘and also having richer foods with a higher fat content as they will be much slower to empty from the stomach, taking longer to digest and leaving your with problems – foods that fit this category include roast potatoes, cream and butter in mashed potatoes, sausages, stuffing, gravy made from the juices of the meat, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake.’
And just in case you haven’t started crying yet, she adds ‘having higher fat snacks such as crisps, chocolates, mince pies and nuts, carbonated drinks and having more alcohol than usual – even smoking more than usual if you’re a smoker, can all result in heartburn.’
Nutritionist Rick Hay adds that staying away from too much sugar is a sure-fire way to help prevent fire in your oesophagus. ‘If you’re having lots of sugary foods, that is going to impact your stomach bacteria – the probiotics get out of whack and then things like candida can grow and that makes the tummy unhappy.’
‘Tis the season for heartburn he explained, ‘You might go out for your Christmas party and have a spicy meal (spicy food can also set it off) and follow it up with five glasses of champagne, or more. Then follow that up with mince pies and cream – this can all cause a lot of problems because we have more sugary food and alcohol in our Christmas and new year diet and everything is much more processed.’
But the important thing to remember is that everyone is different and heartburn will occur depending on an individual’s circumstances and intolerances. ‘There are a whole host of causative agents – for some people, it can be strawberries and red pepper and for others, it might be bread.’
How to avoid heartburn
Chances are, we’re going to eat lots of creamy, buttery, and even spicy goodness this Christmas. So what do the experts say about lessening our chances of heartburn when we do indulge?
Dr Tham revealed a few handy pointers for keeping it at bay. ‘Apart from avoiding and limiting fatty foods in general, you can also limit the amount of fat used in your Christmas day cooking.’
Avoiding foods that are highly spicy and known irritants is also advised (luckily we don’t tend to opt for a Vindaloo on Christmas day) and Dr Tham adds that even avoiding excess coffee can help.
Treating the oesophageal area is only going to provide you with some basic relief, you’ve got to go down to the gut
Another tip the doctor gives is to chew your food slower and properly as this will help ease and aid digestion.
‘Try not to eat late at night, avoid bending down after a meal, eat smaller and more frequent meals, avoid having the largest meal in the evening and don’t wear tight clothing,’ – there goes our Christmas dress.
Dr Tham also stresses that you should give yourself at least a three-hour gap between having a meal and lying down – that means no conking out potato-drunk on the sofa post dinner.
Heartburn remedies for fast fixes AND prevention
Okay, now we know exactly why we’re getting it, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to avoid all fun this Christmas. So when the dreaded thing does happen – we want it gone, and fast.
According to nutritionist Rick Hay, it’s not just about treating the oesophagus but healing your entire digestive system.
‘Treating the oesophageal area is only going to provide you with some basic relief, you’ve got to go down to the gut where the problem is because you’ll still have too much acid in the tummy and that will exacerbate your problems.’
Here are some remedies that help heal both your oesophogus AND gut so that you can make your symptoms disappear.
Apple cider vinegar may introduce more acid into the digestive tract. If your acid reflux is the result of too little stomach acid, this may be beneficial.
It’s made from apples fermented with bacteria and yeast. The organic and raw varieties are generally allowed to ferment naturally (as opposed to being pasteurised in non-organic varieties) and that is believed to be more nutrient-rich and beneficial for conditions such as heart burn or acid reflux.
There’s plenty of anecdotal reports that apple cider vinegar can help, and one randomised, placebo-controlled study done in 2015 found that taking a tablespoon of cider vinegar after a rich meal (in this case, one with chilli in it) could help reduce symptoms of heartburn.
TRY: Clearspring Organic Cider Vinegar £2.79
If your heartburn is from a peptic ulcer some studies have suggested a specific type of liquorice known as DGL or deglycyrrhizinated licorice may help.
Do check with your doctor first as people with certain conditions such as high blood pressure, kidney disease and diabetes shouldn’t take it.
Rick Hay says that herbal teas can be the perfect way to heal an upset digestive system. ‘Once heartburn kicks in, everything is going to take about half an hour to fix but chamomile tea will help as it’s soothing on the tummy.
Opt for comforting teas like peppermint and spearmint, ginger, fenugreek or liquorice. When you have heartburn herbal teas are very useful but you may need to have a few of them throughout the course of the day for it to really help.’
TRY: Clipper Organic Infusion Chamomile and Lemon, £2
Using aloe for heartburn is like putting water on a fire, says Hay. ‘It has a thick, mucus-like texture that soothes the inflammation internally and can help with alkalization’.
TRY: Fushi Wellbeing Organic Aloe Vera Juice, £10.99
Spirulina powder in pineapple juice
‘Supergreen powders, in particular, spirulina can be helpful. If you do a spirulina shot with some pineapple juice it will help soothe the stomach.
Spirulina contains chlorophyll and greens that help cool the system down – heartburn is an inflammatory response so we need to dampen and cool .
But pineapple juice adds a benefit too. It not only takes away the horrible taste of spirulina (although you can also have spirulina capsules) it contains vegetable digestive enzymes which also help rebalance your digestive system.’
TRY: Green Origins Organic Spirulina Tablets, £13.99
While you may have thought that probiotics don’t work for instant relief, Hay insisted there is some benefit to taking probiotics before and after your Christmas party antics.
‘It might be that your tummy bacteria are out of whack and causing an acid imbalance and producing the wrong toxins. If you put some probiotics into your body it acts like chlorine does in the swimming pool and makes the whole system a bit better. One lot of probiotics is not going to cure an ongoing problem with heartburn but taken with the aloe vera [above] may help the aloe work better in the tummy.’
TRY: Bio-Kult Protexin Probiotics, £32.55
Vitamins A, C and E
According to Hay, vitamins can be used to help the oesophagus heal. ‘Certain vitamins are mucus membrane strengtheners, in particular vitamin A and beta-carotene.
Vitamin E is also a skin vitamin and often your skin vitamins work well in this area – think of your mucus membrane as being like your skin but on the inside.
Then vitamin C is your key anti-inflammatory vitamin but make sure it is a low acidic form so not a calcium sorbate or ascorbic acid. These kinds of vitamins could help reduce the inflammation around the oesophagus.’
TRY: BioCare Vitamin C 1000, £15.95
Algal oil or fish oil
‘I’m also a massive fan of algal oil. It’s the new, non-fish, fish oil. It has EPA and DHA in it [essential omega-3 fatty acids – your body needs these to function]. Algal oil helps block the inflammatory pathways that lead to heartburn but if people aren’t vegetarian they can take fish oil as well. When your body is in an inflammatory state (as it is when you have heartburn) we say that it goes into an inflammatory cascade, what fish oil or algal oil will do is put a blocker, almost like a speed hump in the road, in the way of the inflammation. But be aware this is more of a long-term remedy rather than a quick fix.’
TRY: Natures Own Omega 3 Vegan, £23.70
Getting yourself back on track
When it comes to post-Christmas indulgence, boring is the theme of the day.
‘Make sure you’re having food that is very plain, like a plain vegetable soup for example – without the extra pepper, without the extra spices. Maybe opt for some steamed vegetables with grilled salmon or tempeh. And you may not feel very much like eating fermented foods the next day but they can also be good for getting the system back on track and balancing out the bacteria in your gut,’ suggests Hay,
That being said, Dr Tham adds that suffering from heartburn doesn’t have to mean eating boring food all the time. ‘Some people think that if you have acid reflux, staying on a bland diet is the only safe option
In fact, there are many spices that can be taken without causing reflux such as cumin, turmeric, rosemary, basil and ginger.’ One final thing that the doctor stresses is that if you suffer from heartburn, there are effective remedies and you should try and seek them out.
Great, now that we’ve got all that sorted – happy Christmas-ing!