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Wilburn: Heartburn signals a weak stomach
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Many of us suffer from heartburn after eating a big meal. The official name for heartburn is esophageal reflux. Heartburn may mean we have eaten too much, but it can also signal that the sphincter that keeps food in our stomach is weak.

 How can heartburn be treated? Depending on how severe it is, we can treat it with diet and/or medication.
Start by keeping a food journal so you can identify what you ate the day or hours before an attack hits. Review your journals periodically to see if you can identify your specific “triggers.” Once you have managed to identify which foods are your triggers, avoid them. Don’t be shy about letting family and friends know they cause you pain.

From your food journal you may be able to identify certain food and drink that increases your stomach acid or slows stomach emptying. Greasy, high-fat foods, spicy meals, tomato products, citrus foods, regular and decaffeinated coffee, cola drinks, alcohol, onions and chocolate can cause problems. Unfortunately peppermint and spearmint candy, often eaten after meals to settle the stomach, can also relax the sphincter and increase risk for heartburn.

Lose weight if you have too much fat around your middle. Excess fat presses on your stomach, pushing its contents up into the esophagus. Even if you are not overweight, wearing too tight a waistband or belt will make heartburn worse.

Exercise regularly. Exercise not only helps maintain weight, it helps cut down on the amount of acid getting out of your stomach and into your throat.

Try to eat three or four small meals throughout the day so that the stomach is never too full. Big meals put more pressure on the muscles that are supposed to keep your stomach shut. Then it’s easier for acid to push up into your throat.

Eat your biggest meal at noon. Many people suffer more heartburn if they lie down or bend over after eating. Give your stomach a chance to empty before you lie down. To prevent this, don’t eat within two hours of going to bed.  

If you smoke, stop. Nicotine increases release of stomach acid and allows the sphincter to open more easily.

If heartburn is frequent or severe and changing your eating habits does not help, make an appointment to see your doctor. Other signs can be hoarseness, a cough that just won’t go away or asthma that keeps getting worse. Besides the discomfort, long-term heartburn can damage the esophagus and may lead to cancer.

Unfortunately some people think they have heartburn when in fact they are having a heart attack. If your problem really is heartburn, you may need some tests to see if stomach acid has damaged your esophagus. The doctor may also help if you need to quit smoking or lose some weight.

Certain medications increase risk for heartburn. Pain relievers like aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen can irritate the stomach.

Asthma medication and calcium-channel blockers taken for heart problems can also increase heartburn symptoms. Even hormone replacement therapy taken after menopause and some antidepressants can make heartburn worse. However, don’t stop any medication without discussing it first with your doctor.

New drugs and therapies for heartburn are available if changes in diet and lifestyle don’t work. You don’t have to suffer that miserable burning feeling every time you eat. Heartburn can be controlled with the right diet, medication and lifestyle.

Adapted from: University of Georgia and University of Florida cooperative extensions

Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Contact: 770-535-8290.

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