If you love eating spicy, greasy foods - but pay for it afterwards with a case of heartburn and acid indigestion - you’re not alone.
These symptoms strike millions of people daily, and we spend billions of dollars annually on medications to quench the fire.
At the root of the problem is a bit of faulty plumbing in the digestive tract. At the bottom of the esophagus, where it meets the stomach, lies a ring of muscle designed to close of the stomach entrance.
When pressure on this muscle is reduced, stomach contents can back up into the esophagus and lead to discomfort. Along with heartburn and acid regurgitation, other symptoms like coughing, hoarseness and chest pain may tag along.
Fatty foods, chocolate, peppermint and onions cause heartburn directly – they reduce the pressure on the ring of muscle which allows it to relax. Large meals distend the stomach, and this can also lead to reduced pressure and discomfort.
Other foods, like coffee, orange juice, tomato products and spicy foods are also known to cause distress, but they don’t affect the muscle directly. They have their own method of inflicting pain - by irritating the esophagus. Add alcohol to the mix, and you increase the production of stomach acid, adding insult to injury.
Scientists have looked at the effects of various meals – ones certain to provoke suffering – in brave volunteers with from recurring heartburn. Fatty meals cause distress, to be sure, but spicy meals combined with alcohol appear to be the biggest offenders.
In one study, a spicy tomato-based chili washed down with a glass of red wine caused more discomfort than a burger with fries and a chocolate shake. The reason? The tomatoes lowered pressure on the muscle at the bottom of the swallowing tube, the chili pepper irritated the esophagus, and the wine increased stomach acid – creating the perfect storm.
As people gain weight, they’re more likely to experience heartburn. It may be related to dietary choices – such as fatty foods or alcohol – or it may be related to large meal size. A large midsection may also put some upward pressure on the stomach, allowing stomach acid to back up.
Antacids offer relief, but it’s also wise to try to avoid the problem in the first place.
- Stay away from offending foods and beverages as much as you can. Not all foods and beverages are a problem for everyone, so a bit of trial and error will help you determine what works for you.
- If you are overweight, weight loss will help. You’re likely to eat smaller, lowfat meals – one of the best treatment strategies.
- Let gravity assist. Stay upright for a few hours after eating – sit up or take a walk, but try not to lie down right after you eat.
- A large fluid intake with meals may distend the stomach and cause discomfort. Some people find that drinking fluids between meals, rather than with them, tames their heartburn.
Susan Bowerman is a consultant to Herbalife.