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Simple tips to fight heartburn without drugs

It's a typical routine for many busy Americans -- a long, busy, stress-filled day that ends with gobbling down a late-night dinner not long before bedtime. A common result of this lousy lifestyle habit is heartburn, also known as acid reflux. More than 20 percent of Americans suffer from heartburn.

Patients and consumers each year spend billions on drugs such as proton pump inhibitors or H2 blockers to manage the condition, though they don't always do the trick. And many medical experts say these drugs may be unnecessary in many cases since lifestyle changes -- as simple as eating dinner earlier -- can ease digestion.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, the risk for acid reflux increases in people who eat any food after 8 p.m. or within three hours before going to bed.

"Many of us get home late, we eat a big meal, we eat the things we're not supposed to like spicy foods or fatty foods, drink a glass of wine, a coffee, chocolate, lay down on the couch and go to bed an hour later," cardiologist Dr. Tara Narula told "CBS This Morning." "These are all the things you want to try and avoid."

She added that stress, lack of exercise and obesity also are additional lifestyle factors that add fuel to the fire.

Acid reflux isn't just uncomfortable, it's also damaging to a person's long-term health. "When it's more severe, they can develop esophagitis, which is inflammation of the esophagus, strictures, or narrowing of the esophagus," said Narula. She added that in some cases recurrent acid reflux can lead to esophageal cancer, which kills about 15,000 Americans each year.

Many patients with acid reflux are also more prone to laryngitis, asthma, post-nasal drip and chronic cough.

Late-night eating has sometimes been blamed for leading to weight gain, but it turns out a sensible dinner at 10 p.m. instead of 7 won't make you pack on the pounds. It's just more likely to cause a nasty case of heartburn. However, lots of mindless snacking while watching late night TV -- extra calories on top of a regular day's intake -- may lead to both weight gain and acid reflux.

There are also a number of other ways to prevent reflux that don't involve medication. Weight loss can help. So can avoiding alcohol and smoking. Try elevating your head in bed at night instead of laying down flat.

Narula also suggests you take off any restrictive items of clothing such as belts or Spanx before sitting down -- at a reasonable hour -- to enjoy your last meal of the day.