As we gather with friends and family, the food is often bountiful and alcoholic libations flow generously. However, as is the case with everything in life, excess begets consequence. Following festive moments, we are more likely to wake up feeling bloated, nauseated or have abdominal cramps. But what should you do? Run to the pharmacy in the hopes of finding a remedy to detoxify your liver?
Contrary to popular belief, the liver has absolutely nothing to do with these predicaments! Rather, these symptoms are typical to a minor digestive problem. In fact, real hepatic illnesses are rarely accompanied by gastro-intestinal symptoms.
Symptoms experienced over the holidays usually include abdominal pain or cramps, nausea, eructations (burping) and bloating. Most of us use the term “indigestion” to explain all of these symptoms. As unpleasant as the symptoms may be, they are usually not very serious nor do they last very long. An episode of indigestion can be the result of eating too copious a meal, or of eating one specific food in excess. You should also keep in mind that a viral or bacterial infection could also be the culprit. However, in rare cases, these symptoms can be indicative of a much more serious condition. This is why you should learn to distinguish which symptoms should be taken seriously enough to seek medical advice.
Heartburn and gastro-oesophageal reflux (acid reflux)
Heartburn, also known as pyrosis, occurs when the valve located between the stomach and the oesophagus (tube linking the mouth to the stomach) does not close properly, causing gastric acid to come back up the oesophagus. This phenomenon is called reflux. As this reflux actually irritates the oesophagus, it usually causes a burning sensation.
In addition to the typical burning sensation in the abdomen, patients will often feel nauseous and have an acid or bitter taste in the mouth. These malaises most often occur after eating a large meal or while lying down, and can last between a few minutes and a few hours.
Heartburn can be triggered by alcohol, coffee, and by meals that are rich, spicy or acidic, notably those that include tomatoes or citrus fruits. Hence, to keep your stomach from becoming topsy-turvy, you should try and stay away from these irritants. Cigarettes, certain medications like anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen, are also known to irritate the stomach. If you have a sensitive stomach, you should diminish or all together banish these irritants whenever possible.
Additionally, being overweight also puts pressure on the abdomen by compressing the stomach. This compression can sometimes cause a reflux of gastric contents back up the oesophagus. For many individuals, losing a bit of weight is enough to assuage symptoms.
Physical activity also plays a role. In addition to helping maintain a healthy body weight, it can genuinely contribute in decreasing symptoms of gastric discomfort. With the approval of your physician, you should aim to do between 30 and 60 minutes of physical activity daily, most days of the week. Do not worry, there is no need to run a marathon as physical activity can be as simple as bundling-up and taking a lovely walk after dinner.
Furthermore, it has long been known that stress increases the frequency and intensity of heartburn. To help prevent heartburn, you should eat slowly in a calm environment and take the time to chew each mouthful properly. You should also try to identify and reduce the sources of stress in your life.
While you can relieve digestive problems quite efficiently, it is obviously preferable to prevent them altogether. During the holidays, we should avoid eating huge servings of food using the excuse “I only indulge once a year”, as you could really regret it in the morning! Eating smaller portions for the first course of a meal and eating slowly are a much safer bet. Take the time to really appreciate and enjoy the food you are eating. And take a break before reaching for another helping! Are you really still hungry? You are the only person who knows if you actually need another helping or if you are simply overindulging.
When alcohol libations are involved, you should drink slowly, take smaller drinks, and reduce the total quantity you ingest.
Numerous over-the-counter medications available in pharmacies can help alleviate discomfort. They are divided into two categories: antacids, which neutralize excess stomach acid; and H2-receptor antagonists, medication that block the production of acid in the stomach. These medications do not suit everyone and should not be taken for more than two weeks without the approval of a physician. Speak with your pharmacist to learn which medication is appropriate for your specific symptoms.
Bloating and flatulence
Bloating is caused by the formation of gases in the intestines and stomach, and is usually accompanied by abdominal cramps and pain. This predicament often occurs after eating fatty meals, as these slow down the drainage of the stomach and increase the feeling of fullness. Stress, constipation and other digestive problems can also cause bloating.
Flatulence is often caused by the fermentation of undigested foods in the colon, like dietary fibres, or when the intestines have difficulty breaking down certain nutrients such as the sugars contained in dairy products or fruits. Constipation is also known to cause flatulence.
We can prevent bloating and flatulence by eating less fatty foods, as well as foods that are known to cause gases such as legumes, and cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, coli-flower, etc. We should also avoid soft drinks, chewing gum, hard candies and certain fruits.
Eructations allow the body to eject excess air trapped in the stomach. There are many strategies to diminish eructations, and they actually work:
- Eat and drink slowly, and avoid drinking through straws;
- Avoid drinking soft drinks and beer, as these release carbonic gas in the stomach;
- Forget about cigarettes and avoid eating hard candies and chewing gum, as they increase the quantity of air you take in;
- Have your dental prosthesis checked. If they are not well adjusted, they can increase the quantity of air you take in.
Know when to consult a physician
Although a little indigestion is nothing to worry about, you should consult a physician if discomfort persists for more than two weeks, or if it is accompanied by specific symptoms that may point to a more serious condition. You should see a healthcare professional if:
- Heartburn suddenly appear for the first time after the age of 50;
- You have heartburn more than twice a week;
- You have difficulty swallowing or swallowing is painful;
- The pain is serious, persistent or increasing, and is preventing you from eating;
- You have lost a lot of weight for no apparent reason, that is any loss over 5% of your normal body weight;
- There is blood in your stools, or your stools are black;
- There is blood in your urine;
- You are vomiting blood;
- You have difficulty breathing, irradiating pain in your arm, neck or jaw;
- You experience dizziness or sweating along with abdominal pain;
You are plagued by gastro-intestinal problems? Because the symptoms and treatments are very different from one individual to another, you should consult your pharmacist to learn all the strategies that can help you prevent such discomfort. He or she can help you identify which over-the-counter medication can help you achieve temporary relief.