The Dangers of Ignoring Your Heartburn

man with heartburn

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The holidays can definitely give you a warm feeling in your chest, but not the kind of feeling that makes you jolly. Rather, the kind that can signal heartburn. After gorging ourselves during Thanksgiving and attending subsequent holiday parties that serve all kinds of fried food and have open bars, some of us are probably left with heartburn from overeating and drinking a little too much. You know the feeling — a burning sensation that runs from the upper part of your abdomen and settles into your chest. When this occurs, it’s likely that you pop a Tums and go on with your day. But when the symptoms become more frequent, you need to find a way to remedy it, because if not treated properly it can lead to cancer.

Despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with your heart; it’s the symptoms that can feel similar to those of a heart attack or heart disease, says WebMD. Heartburn occurs because there’s an irritation of the esophagus that is caused by stomach acid, which causes that burning sensation or discomfort you feel in the upper part of the abdomen or just below the breast bone. Normally when you’re not experiencing heartburn or acid reflux, a muscular valve in the lower part of your esophagus called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), located where the esophagus meets the stomach, works to keep your stomach acid in your stomach, preventing it from traveling upwards into your throat.

The LES opens to allow food into the stomach, permits belching, and then closes again. However, if there is some kind of dysfunction and the LES opens too often or does not close tightly enough then stomach acid can reflux or seep into the esophagus and cause that burning sensation. If it becomes a chronic problem, it’s called Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is a chronic digestive disease that occurs from having a constantly irritated lining of your esophagus. It causes a chronic burning sensation that can cause life threatening problems if it’s not treated properly.

It’s only if you ignore your problems that acid reflux can actually cause cancer — if you seek treatment early enough, it’s preventable. If left untreated, the cells that line your esophagus will be replaced with cells that are more resistant to stomach acid, developing into a condition known as Barrett’s esophagus. MedicineNet says that having Barrett’s esophagus increases your risk of developing Esophageal Cancer. The cells can turn precancerous and eventually, cancerous, and men are at higher risk for this.

According to the New York State Department of Health, cancer of the esophagus occurs most often in men over the age of 65, with men being 3 to 4 times more likely than women to get esophageal cancer. While nearly half the population experiences heartburn, about 20% of American adults experience it at least twice a week, only .5 % of people ever develop esophageal cancer, according to the American Society of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy.

man with heartburn who is eating

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If you have GERD, make sure to follow up annually with your specialist to see if your cells have become precancerous or develop into Barrett’s esophagus to prevent any reflux from doing lasting damage. If you still get frequent heart burn, which is likely during this holiday season, when we all tend to be more indulgent, here are a few things you can do prevent (or avoid) getting heartburn.

Avoid trigger drinks and foods

The holiday season gives way to drinking copious amounts of wine that is bound to give you heartburn, so try not to or keep it to no more than a glass or two. Also, stay away from citrus, spicy foods, coffee, and carbonated beverages. “The acid in the beverage, as well as all of the carbonation, pushes acid up,” said Dr. Partha Nandi, a clinical assistant professor at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine in Rochester, Mich., to Fox News.

You’ll also be tempted to overeat during the holidays and are certainly going to add dessert to the mix. All of those carbohydrates, refined grains, and sugars can make digestion difficult — triggering heartburn. Try to counter those effects by adding some protein-rich foods to your diet, along with vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats, and low glycemic carbs like sweet potatoes. When you’re hitting the buffet at holiday parties, try cutting your slice of cake in half, says Craig Fear, a nutritional therapy practitioner and author of The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, to Fox News. “You don’t have to deny or deprive yourself,” he says. Also, instead of piling your dish high with everything from the buffet, eat smaller mini meals.

Make time to relax

A recent Harris poll found that 71% of Americans are stressed out by the holidays, and many overeat to deal, which can make your heartburn symptoms worse. Don’t let anxiety consume you; keep your schedule as normal as possible and make sure that you find time to get a massage or do some yoga to keep you centered and calm.

Cut yourself off

Those holiday parties can run late and they can keep you snacking all night, but eating too close to bedtime can make acid reflux worse. Make sure you stop eating and drinking three to four hours before bedtime, which is about the time it takes for your stomach to empty so you won’t experience reflux symptoms, says The Huffington Post.

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