“National G.E.R.D. Awareness Week” is November 18-24 this year — a week BEFORE Thanksgiving, but maybe that’s good. Being aware of this annoying condition can help you avoid it.
What’s “GERD”? It stands for “gastro-esophageal reflux disease”. Back in the day, it was commonly known as “heartburn.” It happens when the acid from your stomach backs up into your esophagus and it burns the hell out of it. Your stomach is well-equipped to handle the stomach acids it produces to aid digestion, but the esophagus is much more sensitive. When stomach acid gurgles up into the esophagus, it’s painful.
A big Thanksgiving meal can trigger GERD even if you rarely experience heartburn. Why? Your stomach is only so big. When you eat more than the stomach can handle, the sphincter muscle between the stomach and the esophagus may not close completely (see the graphic). When stomach acid is released to start digestion in the stomach, some of that acid bubbles up and you feel a burning sensation.
How to prevent GERD and Enjoy Your Thanksgiving Meal
The International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) put out this great graphic with 15 tips for avoiding GERD. I’ll explain each one:
- Eat the meal earlier. It gives you more time to digest your food. Having a big dinner in the the evening is a sure-fire way to get heartburn.
- Serve (and eat) light appetizers. The Thanksgiving meal is an important tradition. Save valuable tummy space and spend calories on the meal, instead of on typical nibbles. A couple of bites of something and leave it at that.
- Stay active! Keeping moving helps your stomach empty itself a little sooner. No marathons or vigorous exercise here, but any movement more than sitting down is a good idea.
- Don’t smoke. Add “heartburn irritant” to the list of reasons to avoid smoking. Enough said.
- Nix the juice. The acid in fruit juice is much tamer than stomach acid, but can still bother the esophagus. Fruit nectar fares better, but if you must have juice, dilute it at least 1:1 with water.
- Limit the drinks. Alcohol is a known trigger for reflux. It relaxes the esophageal sphincter, allowing stomach contents to back its way into the esophagus, but it can aggravate tender tissue on the way down, too. Another trigger drink: regular coffee. Keep it to decaf.
- Season lightly. This is individual, but some known irritants are things like chili peppers, tabasco, and hot sauces like salsa. They may not like you as much as you like them.
- Pass on deep-frying your turkey. I’d add, “and anything else.” Fried foods trigger GERD symptoms in many folks, so be warned. If you must eat them, think “taste” or a bite instead of a portion.
- Use smaller plates. It’s amazing how well this works. If you’re int the habit of having seconds, try using a salad plate. Then a second helping doesn’t have to mean overeating.
- Trade the soda for water. Bubbly stuff creates gas. Gas puts upward pressure on that sphincter again and risks blowing acidic stomach contents into the esophagus.
- Watch the desserts. Two reasons: 1) They’re heavy, just at the time your stomach is probably already full. 2) They’re usually really fatty (pie crust especially, but cake as well). Best bet? Eat the filling in a small portion of pumpkin pie. Hold the whipped cream and the a-la-mode.
- Skip the after-dinner mint. Peppermint oil – the flavoring – isn’t a “spice” but it’s just as irritating to the stomach and the esophagus. It’s NOT a “digestive”.
- SLOW DOWN! Make that salad plate-sized portion last at least 20 minutes – the amount of time it takes for your brain to register fullness, so don’t get there before the brain does! Then ask yourself if you even want any more. And remember, this is a time to get social. Try and say something to everyone at the table.
- Stay awake. And upright. People can feel comatose after a big meal (another reason to eat less). Laying down after eating just makes it easier for stomach contents to back its way up into your esophagus and give you GERD symptoms. Empty stomachs are better sleep companions.
- Talk to your doctor. Get relief! There are medications available if you suffer from GERD symptoms frequently.
Above all, may you enjoy the day, remember to be thankful. My very best to you and your family.