Stuffed? Doctor shares how to avoid heartburn, acid reflux from holiday meal overindulgence

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FILE – (AP Photo/Larry Crowe, File)

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — The holidays are upon us, and with this time of year comes the potential for overindulging on family meals.

Memorial Health gastroenterologist Steve Carpenter says that while it may be tempting to reload your dinner plate for a second or third helping, eating too much food can have health consequences, like heartburn or acid reflux.

“Holiday season clearly is a time where we see more problems with gastroesophageal reflux disease, and there are many reasons for that, typically this year, because we’ve put on our ‘quarantine 15,’ so we’re all a bit heavier,” said Carpenter, who also serves as Memorial Health’s academic chair of medicine.

“Weight contributes to the pathogenesis of gastroesophageal reflux disease, overeating fried foods, drinking carbonated beverages, smoking — all of these factors play a big role in reflux symptoms, and patients can have quite a bit of difficulty with reflux regurgitation because of those risk factors,” he said.

Regurgitation, he explained, happens when a person can feel fluid entering the back of their throat from the esophagus or stomach.

Carpenter adds that other foods and drinks that could exacerbate reflux symptoms include chocolate, citrus, alcohol and coffee.

If you begin overeating, your body may give you clues that it’s time to put down the fork.

Carpenter says feeling significantly bloated, somewhat nauseated or starting to slightly regurgitate food are signs of overindulging.

“Some of the most common initial symptoms of acid reflux include something called water brash, where there’s a sense of a sour taste in the back of our throat,” he said.

“The symptom of indigestion is a little bit less specific and defined by people in many different ways; that usually involves some sense of discomfort in the upper abdomen or chest area,” he said.

In addition to eating in moderation, Carpenter shares some recommendations for avoiding discomfort after a big holiday meal.

“When we have Thanksgiving dinner, we typically will have a huge meal, and we want to lie down and take a nap, but the worst thing you could do after having a heavy meal is to become recumbent,” Carpenter said.

“The best thing you can do is get up and go for a long walk,” he added. “It’s going to get things moving, you’re going to be upright, it’ll improve your digestion, you’ll feel much better and you’ll have more energy.”

Carpenter says there are a number of over-the-counter remedies for acid reflux available at local pharmacies, but adds they may be more effective if taken before symptoms develop.

“The H2-receptor antagonists as well as the proton pump inhibitors and the antacids all can be moderately effective in management, but typically don’t work very well after ingestion of a large meal,” he said.

The medical expert says that while he wouldn’t be overly alarmed about heartburn occurring on Thanksgiving or Christmas, lingering symptoms could be cause for concern.

“Typically, if someone has acid reflux symptoms after a holiday meal, we’ll chalk that up to circumstances, but when people have reflux for a long period of time — say for example, a year or longer or they require long-term medical therapy — then at that point, you might think something might be wrong, and that’s where I would like to say, ‘be cautious,’” Carpenter said.

He says as the ongoing pandemic coincides with the holidays, becoming less active, spending more time indoors and gaining weight has become more of an issue. 

“We all have to be quite diligent about weight gain and trying to keep as active as possible in this setting,” Carpenter said. “We can still get outside, we can still socially distance and walk around, run or go to the home gym.”

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