Heartburn or Indigestion? How to Settle Your Stomach During the Festive Season | Vital Pharmacy Supplies

The season of excess can play havoc on our stomachs, but don’t let your holiday heartburn take control. Here’s how to settle your stomach once indigestion and heartburn officially kicks in.

Suffering with a case of holiday heartburn? Overindulging on rich, indulgent foods, fizzy drinks, caffeine and alcohol over the festive season can wreak havoc on your digestive system. Unless you have a bullet-proof gut that’s made of steel, it’s more than likely that your stomach will start to tell you to slow down. It’s clever like that. But it won’t be quiet about it. As soon as that painful, burning sensation kicks in, you know you’ve pushed it too far.

Luckily heartburn and indigestion are fairly straightforward to treat, but the tricky thing is knowing which one you’ve got in the first place. Both conditions can display similar symptoms, so it can be difficult to know for sure which one you’re suffering with if you don’t know the warning signs.

Certain foods can also make the symptoms worse — the key is recognising those triggers and avoiding them, to prevent any potential uncomfortable outbreaks.

So, if you’ve stuffed yourself to the point of no return and need to alleviate that burning chest pain fast, we’ve put together some helpful advice on how to treat both indigestion and heartburn, the culprit foods you should avoid, and how to recognise the warning signs.

What is heartburn?

Ever been caught out with a painful, burning sensation that feels stuck in your chest or throat? Yup, you’ve most likely experienced a case of heartburn.

Heartburn is an unpleasant, burning sensation that’s felt in the back of your throat and middle of the chest caused when acid from your stomach refluxes, or comes up, into your food pipe (also known as the oesophagus). You might also feel bloated and nauseous with an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

What causes heartburn?

Heartburn (also known as acid reflux) occurs when stomach acid travels from your stomach back up into your throat. It travels up via your oesophagus — the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. It’s your stomach’s way of saying to your oesophagus that it doesn’t want this food, and to take it back.

Heartburn is actually the symptom you feel when reflux happens — acid reflux is when the stomach acid flows back up into the oesophagus, which means (frustratingly) you can experience indigestion and heartburn at the same time.

The pain is usually located in your chest or throat, and you might also experience a bitter taste in your throat or mouth. Symptoms tend to worsen shortly after eating, when lying down or even when bending over.

Heartburn isn’t life-threatening but it’s unpleasant and painful, and if you experience symptoms more than twice a week, you may have a chronic condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (aka GERD). Typically, when you have this disease, there are certain foods that can trigger heartburn, however this varies from person to person. Other causes include:

  • eating a large meal
  • eating a large meal and then doing some kind of physical activity, like lifting or bending
  • too much coffee or alcohol
  • anxiety, which can make the stomach 'churn'
  • advanced pregnancy, when the womb pushes up against the stomach

Over time, GERD may damage the oesophagus, leading to complications such as oesophageal cancer or Barrett’s oesophagus.

What makes me more at risk?

Anyone can get heartburn, even more so after devouring a large meal. But there are certain factors and triggers that make you more prone to the condition. These include:

  • being overweight or obese
  • pregnancy
  • certain medications (including anti-inflammatory painkillers, aspirin, ibuprofen, sedatives, and blood pressure medications)
  • smoking
  • a type of hernia known as a hiatus hernia
  • stress
  • fatty foods, spicy foods, chocolate, mint or tomato products
  • caffeinated drinks, alcohol, very hot drinks or citrus juices

What is indigestion?

Indigestion, or dyspepsia (sometimes called functional dyspepsia) is a symptom, or a collection of symptoms, that present primarily as pain or discomfort in the upper middle part of your stomach/abdomen.

Other accompanying symptoms can include pain behind the chest/breastbone (heartburn), nausea, bloating, flatulence and/or belching. It’s often a side effect of overeating, eating rich, spicy or fatty foods, or drinking too much alcohol, and it can also be a symptom of acid reflux — as we mentioned earlier, you can have indigestion and heartburn at the same time.

Common symptoms to look out for include:

  • feeling too full after eating or unable to finish a meal because you feel full
  • pain or burning in the upper region of your stomach
  • nausea or heartburn
  • bloating
  • burping

What causes indigestion?

The exact cause of indigestion is not known, but it’s thought it may be triggered by food, drink or medication, or in response to an infection, stress or changed function of the cells in your digestive system.

Some common causes of indigestion include:

  • overeating or eating too quickly
  • fatty, greasy or spicy foods
  • too much caffeine, alcohol, chocolate or carbonated beverages
  • smoking
  • anxiety and depression
  • certain antibiotics, pain relievers and iron supplements

Some gastrointestinal disorders can also cause bouts of indigestion, including:

  • stomach cancer
  • GERD
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • lactose intolerance
  • gallbladder disease
  • peptic ulcersgastritis
  • bacterial infections, such as Helicobacter pylori
  • gastroparesis

How do you treat heartburn and indigestion?

Whilst both conditions are uncomfortable, the good news is you can easily treat the symptoms of heartburn and indigestion with over-the-counter medications.

Antacids are the most effective treatment option as they work to neutralise the stomach acid. You can take them as soon as you experience symptoms of both heartburn and indigestion, or before eating trigger foods, to prevent symptoms from occurring. They’re taken as a liquid or as a chewable tablet and usually contain aluminium, magnesium and/or calcium salts.

Whilst they’re effective at treating symptoms, antacids aren’t meant to be taken every day, unless otherwise instructed by your doctor. Taking them daily can cause GI upset. Antacids can also interfere with the absorption of many regular medicines, so check with your doctor about their suitability for you.

Other OTC treatments include H2-antagonists/H2 blockers, also called ‘H2 blockers’. These medicines are taken as tablets when needed, and reduce the amount of acid produced in the stomach. They don’t relieve symptoms as quickly as antacids do, but they do have a longer lasting effect.

Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are used to suppress acid production in the stomach. They form a physical barrier to help prevent stomach acid from moving into the oesophagus – they’re extremely effective, and reduce production of acid as a result of food, by 90 per cent. They can be used as required to treat mild, intermittent symptoms of acid reflux, but advised for short-term use only.

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When should I worry about indigestion and heartburn?

Generally speaking, you don’t need to worry about the occasional attack – while uncomfortable, it’s unlikely to do any real harm. But indigestion and acid reflux can be a good indicator that you need to keep calm and rein in the indulgences, so just pay attention to your symptoms and how often they come on.

If your symptoms persist — occurring twice or more per week — or your symptoms are severe and impairing your quality of life, you should visit your GP for further advice. They may prescribe further medication to help relieve your symptoms.

If frequent heartburn makes it difficult to eat or swallow, your symptoms may be a sign of a more serious medical condition, and you should see your GP immediately.

How do I prevent heartburn and indigestion?

Some people experience symptoms after eating specific foods, so it’s a good idea to pay attention to the triggers that make your symptoms worse, and learn to avoid them. Fatty foods, spicy foods, chocolate, mint or tomato products, along with caffeinated drinks, alcohol, very hot drinks or citrus juices, are generally the worse culprits, but of course these differ from person to person.

Here are a few clever tricks that can help prevent your symptoms from flaring up:

  • avoid or limit food and drinks that tend to trigger your symptoms
  • eat smaller meals — be conscious of your portion sizes
  • wait 2 to 3 hours after eating or drinking before lying down
  • avoid eating before bed
  • limit your alcohol intake
  • drink less caffeine and carbonated drinks
  • go easy on the spice
  • beware of citrus fruits and tomatoes — these can make acid reflux much worse
  • watch your weight — being overweight or obese makes you more prone to both indigestion and heartburn
  • stress less — stress can also trigger symptoms
  • exercise more

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