If you’re one of 24 per cent of Canadians who experience heartburn every day, then finding ways to either avoid or relieve that burning sensation in your lower chest, throat and mouth is at the top of mind every time you sit down for a meal.
And with Thanksgiving kicking off the season of big family feasts, you can be sure that there will be a lot of irritated digestive systems across the country.
“Basically everyone experiences heartburn,” says Andrea D’Ambrosio, registered dietitian and spokesperson with Dietitians of Canada. “However, if you experience it more than twice a week, you might have GERD – or gastroesophageal reflux disease. In this case there’s possible medical treatment from your doctor. You’ll see there are common triggers within our food and lifestyle so it’s pretty common for people to experience this.”
However, some people will experience heartburn more frequently, D’Ambrosio says. For example, weight may play a part in triggering heartburn more often, as well as stress and smoking.
According to the College of Family Physicians of Canada, heartburn happens after eating (often a big meal) or while lying down. Other factors that may worsen heartburn include pregnancy and clothing that is too tight and puts pressure on your stomach.
“But I’d say people of different sizes with different diets can also be prone to heartburn,” D’Ambrosio explains. “It’s also interesting because sometimes [heartburn] is very unique and can vary from person-to-person. So one person might have a certain food trigger, but another person eats that same food without heartburn.”
Despite the uniqueness in triggers and severity, there are several types of diet choices commonly attributed to heartburn, D’Ambrosio says. Below are just seven examples of those choices.
1. Eating big meals in general
“Basically when our stomach gets too full or stretches, then this feeling of being stuffed and distention of our stomachs puts pressure on our lower esophageal sphincter, which is right above your stomach at the bottom of your esophagus,” D’Ambrosio explains. “Normally that closes but when we have a large meal, the stomach is distended and it causes this lower esophageal sphincter to open up and then food can come up from the digestive juices and the acid can come up into your esophagus.”
2. Fatty foods
Think anything deep-fried, D’Ambrosio says.
“This is another big one,” she says. “This is because fat basically slows digestion down in the stomach, so there’s more opportunity for your stomach to be full or distended and to have that increased pressure on the esophageal pressure, which causes heartburn to be more likely.”
Some people, D’Ambrosio says, can get heartburn from alcohol – often red wine.
But it’s when the alcohol is combined with things like a big meal or fatty foods when the effects can really be felt.
“Our symptoms might be even worse,” D’Ambrosio explains. “Alcohol – especially red wine – also impacts the lower esophageal sphincter. And combining red wine with your Thanksgiving meal can be a recipe for heartburn.”
4. Garlic and onions
“The type of sugar in garlic and onions is more difficult for our bodies to breakdown,” D’Ambrosio explains. “So this trigger might aggravate or might be harder on your digestive system, in which case there is greater gas production and could cause an increase in influx.”
5. Spicy foods
Spicy foods – like chili and curry – can also weaken the esophageal sphincter for some people, according to D’Ambrosio. But if you don’t have a problem with these types of foods, then you’re unlikely to get heartburn from them – which is often the case in many cultures with spicier foods.
“I would say it’s very individual,” she says. “Some people, even if they are used to having spicy foods in their family they might still suffer from heartburn and be more prone to it. However, there are others in the same culture who have no problem with it.”
6. Acidic foods
Tomatoes and oranges are just a couple of examples of foods in this category that can contribute to heartburn.
The same process happens here as it does with spicy foods, D’Ambrosio says.
Then there’s chocolate – specifically, the cocoa found in chocolate, D’Ambrosio explains.
“Cocoa causes the esophageal sphincter to release a surge of serotonin and causes the muscles to relax,” she says.
While there may not be effective foods that can help alleviate heartburn once it’s already happened, there are foods that are easier on the stomach that can help you avoid heartburn, D’Ambrosio says.
“I’d say the biggest thing for heartburn prevention is knowing your body and your common culprits and then reducing portion sizes,” she says. “I think the fact of the matter is that if you have bad heartburn if you eat a banana, for example, to help try to alleviate the heartburn… if that person already had heartburn and they’re already overstuffed, I don’t think eating anything else is going to help them.”
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Foods like oatmeal, rice and non-fried potatoes are easily digestible, D’Ambrosio says, as well as easy on the stomach.
The College of Family Physicians of Canada also has a few suggestions on how to prevent heartburn.
First, raise the head of your bed by place four to six-inch blocks under the legs at the head of the bed.
Try to eat two to three hours before lying down.
They also suggest to lose weight if you’re overweight, avoid overeating and to stick to high-protein and low-fat meals.