Avoiding Heartburn on Holidays or Anytime

It's an unwelcome guest at all-too-may holiday gatherings, and all year-round: heartburn, or acid reflux.

It's estimated that 60 million Americans have heartburn at least once a month, and this time of year, it's a nightmare just waiting to happen.

But on "The Early Show" Friday, CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton shared tips to help you steer clear of the pain.

Heartburn, Ashton notes, actually has nothing to do with the heart. But it does cause a burning sensation in the chest, which can confuse people.

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Heartburn comes from too much stomach acid sloshing back up through the opening at the top of the stomach into the esophagus.

Many people have occasional bouts of heartburn, also called acid reflux, but people who have episodes more than twice a week, may have GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) and are particularly susceptible this time of year, with all the eating and drinking at holiday parties.

Certain foods can act as triggers - and many are usually part of holiday festivities. Alcohol is a big offender. Caffeine is another -- in sodas and chocolate. Fatty, greasy foods spell trouble for people with chronic heartburn, or GERD. Too much fat in food slows the process of food leaving the stomach. If food sits in the stomach, it can back up into the esophagus. Spicy and acidic foods are also big offenders. Things like citrus fruits and tomato sauce all can cause irritate the lining of the esophagus. Obviously, the best way to avoid the discomfort from heartburn is to avoid the foods that can trigger those symptoms.

In addition to staying away from food triggers, there are lifestyle changes that will help ease the burn:

STOP SMOKING: First and foremost -- if you smoke -- STOP. Tobacco inhibits saliva, which buffers the acid. Tobacco may also stimulate stomach acid.

DON'T OVEREAT: Large amounts of food stretch the stomach, and that can cause the esophageal sphincter to relax and release acid back up the esophagus.

NO EATING 2-3 HRS BEFORE SLEEP

RAISE THE HEAD OF THE BED: You can use a wedge under your pillow to elevate your head 6 to 10 inches. Pillows don't work as well. Gravity helps keep the acid in the stomach and not flowing backwards into the esophagus.

If you do all those things but are still getting acid reflux, try over-the-counter meds that provide temporary relief. There are antacids such as Tums and Rolaids. There's another group of medications that includes Pepcid and Zantac. And then there are stronger drugs, like Prilosec. They can be used before a big meal to help prevent symptoms.

Occasional heartburn is one thing but, Ashton stresses, heartburn more than twice a week may be more serious and, if left untreated, can be linked to all kinds of diseases, including asthma, throat problems and even esophageal cancer. So you might need to see a doctor to get treated. With the right treatment, you can become symptom-free and avoid any complications.
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