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Heartburn Season

Those seemingly endless holiday gatherings and treats give a lot of people —especially
Kentuckians—an unpleasant episode of heartburn.

“We’re in the Heartburn Heartbelt,” says Nicholas Nickl, M.D., a gastroenterologist,
a specialist who treats digestive problems, at the University of Kentucky Chandler
Medical Center.  “About one in eight Kentuckians suffers severe bouts of
heartburn at least twice a week. Two-thirds of Kentuckians take an antacid at
least twice a month.”

Heartburn, which often is called acid indigestion, typically feels like burning
or pain in the chest, usually felt behind the breastbone. It may last as long
as two to three hours and usually occurs, or is worse, after eating.

The burning feeling is caused by acid that escapes from your stomach through
a weakened one-way valve near the top of your stomach. The acid can travel up
as far as your throat. This acid backup occurs when the muscles operating the
valve between the stomach and the esophagus are weak, allowing acid from the
stomach to surge upward, or reflux, into the esophagus and cause painful heartburn
and indigestion.

The pain can mimic a heart attack. About half of emergency room visits for
heart problems actually are due to heartburn, Nickl says.

“We tend to eat more during the holidays, making our waistlines expand—which
aggravates heartburn,” says Nickl, an associate professor of medicine in the
UK College of Medicine.  “It’s a good idea that if you are going to eat
a big meal, you shouldn’t lie down until at least four hours after eating.”

A lot of what we consume during the holidays—foods high in fat, chocolate,
alcohol, mints, and caffeine—are the main heartburn-causing culprits. Over-the-counter
medications and prescription drugs can help. More than $5 billion in heartburn-controlling
drugs are sold each year in the United States, Nickl says.

But experts recommend that anyone who suffers heartburn twice a week or more
should have a doctor check it out.

“Especially if antacids aren’t working, you should get it checked out. Most
people don’t have complications, but there is that possibility,” Nickl says.

If heartburn goes untreated for a long period of time, it can cause narrowing
and scarring of the esophagus, and is even linked to some cancers, Nickl says.

Nickl offers other tips for heartburn sufferers:

  • Avoid wearing clothing that fits tightly around the

  • Elevate the head of your bed to keep your esophagus
    higher than your stomach.

  • Eat more frequent, smaller meals.

  • Avoid carbonated beverages.

“For most heartburn sufferers, simple steps, such as avoiding
foods or beverages that aggravate the problem, can help alleviate the discomfort,”
Nickl says. “Of course, that’s harder to do during the holidays, so if you suffer
from heartburn, it’s a good idea to keep some medication on hand.”

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