Know Thy Tummy Ache

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Heartburn, Irritable Bowel, and Problems with Dairy

Banish Heartburn

A muscular valve at the end of your esophagus helps trap digestive juices where they belong -- in your stomach. If the valve loosens -- sometimes due to overeating -- acid travels up your esophagus, causing a burning sensation. About one in three women complain of frequent heartburn at Christmastime, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. What's causing the burn? Overeating and common holiday foods make it harder for the valve to stay tightly closed.

Seasonal sources: Everything from candy canes to champagne can make you feel the burn. "Chocolate, alcohol, anything flavored with mint, caffeine, citrus foods, tomatoes, and onions are all culprits, and high-fat foods have the potential to cause acid reflux because they relax the valve," says John W. Popp, Jr., MD, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, in Columbia.

Prevention pointers: Don't overeat. Before attending a holiday party, have a bowl of soup (avoid the tomato-based variety, which can trigger heartburn) to help fill you up. Once you're at the party, eat small portions so you can taste an array of foods without overdoing it. Limit yourself to just one alcoholic beverage, then switch to water or a non-citrus punch. And don't hit the sack until at least two hours after your last bite. "Lying down makes it easier for acid to travel up the esophagus," says Dr. Popp.

If you're especially susceptible to heartburn, take an over-the-counter acid blocker, such as Tagamet or Zantac, about 45 minutes before your feast begins. (Check with your doctor first.)

Rx for relief: If heartburn hits, acid blockers will provide little relief. Instead, try an over-the-counter antacid, such as Tums, Mylanta, or Rolaids. If you don't have any in your medicine cabinet, drink one half teaspoon of baking soda mixed in eight ounces of water to neutralize stomach acid and soothe the esophagus, suggests Fred M. Sutton, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. Or suck on hard candy (anything but mints) to increase saliva, a natural acid-neutralizer. If heartburn persists, or occurs more than twice a week, talk to your doctor -- you may have a more serious condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Down Dairy with Ease

People tend to eat more dairy products during the holidays than they do the rest of the year," says Dr. Sutton. "So even if you don't normally notice a problem with lactose intolerance, you may feel it now." To digest the sugar (lactose) in milk, cheese, ice cream, and other dairy foods, your body needs an ample supply of the enzyme lactase. Unfortunately, thirty million to fifty million people in the U.S. don't have enough lactase. And although experts don't know why, people who have recently suffered from the stomach flu may also have a temporary shortage of lactase. Without enough of the enzyme, too much dairy can cause lactose to linger in the stomach, causing bacteria to accumulate, leading to bloating, gas, and sometimes diarrhea.

Seasonal sources: Cheesecake, ice cream, and eggnog are among the usual suspects, but milk and its dairy cousins are hidden in holiday fare like pumpkin pie and fudge.

Prevention pointers: If you're extremely sensitive to dairy foods, take a lactase supplement, available in pill or liquid form, before the holiday meal. (Check with your doctor first.) "It supplies your body with the lactase it needs to digest dairy products," says Dr. Abreu. If you forget to take the supplement in time, pass on milk- and cream-based foods, but you can still feast on aged cheeses like Parmesan, which have low levels of lactose, and yogurt with live cultures, which aids digestion.

Rx for relief: Unfortunately, once symptoms of lactose intolerance strike, there's little you can do. "Your best bet is to find a bathroom," says Dr. Abreu.

Beat Irritable Bowel Symptoms

About five million Americans, mostly women, suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which causes abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation. Extra stress during the holidays can make the condition even worse.

Seasonal sources: Dairy products and high-fat foods may cause flare-ups, but the most common culprit is stress. In a 16 month study of more than 100 irritable bowel sufferers, researchers at Royal North Shore Hospital, in Sydney, Australia, found that the intensity of symptoms could be attributed to chronic stress in 97 percent of cases.

Prevention pointers: Stick to low-fat meals, and talk to your doctor about new medications, including antidepressants, to treat IBS. And pinpoint what aspect of the holidays has you in knots. Is it paying the bills? Set spending limits and be sure to stick to them. Is it cooking a holiday feast? Switch to potluck or order from your local gourmet food store.

Rx for relief: Stamp out stress: Take a walk around the neighborhood, chat with a friend, sign up for a yoga class at your local YMCA, or make an appointment for a manicure.


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