More than 60 million Americans experience acid indigestion at least once a month, and with March Madness coming to a head this weekend, it's prime time for the common problem. Even smart game-time eating—based, say, on U.S. News's twist on the practical book Eat This, Not That!—may produce some pretty nasty heartburn.
Acid reflux, as it's also called, is more than a painful annoyance. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, a growing number of people have a more persistent and severe form called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Recent studies have linked GERD with a precancerous condition called Barrett's esophagus. "Over the last two decades, the number of cases of esophageal cancer has increased six-fold," says David Johnson, chief of gastroenterology at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk and the past president of the ACG. Earlier this year, a report from the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found an alarming doubling of hospitalizations for esophageal disorders caused by acid reflux between 1998 and 2005.
Whether your symptoms are occasional or unrelenting, mild or severe, there are a number of steps you can take to recognize and minimize heartburn or acid reflux disease. Using a widely advertised prescription or over-the-counter medication is just one. Others include:
Losing weight, particularly if you're obese. This is the factor in combating frequent heartburn, acid reflux disease, and, ultimately, esophageal and gastrointestinal cancers, says Johnson.
Re-examining what you put in your mouth. Fatty foods, alcohol, citrus juice, tomatoes, coffee, and chocolate can all irritate the lining of the esophagus and contribute to heartburn. Large meals can also increase the pressure on your stomach, pushing acid up into the esophagus.
Avoiding eating two to three hours before bedtime. Acid reflux disease has been linked with sleep disturbances that can make you tired during the day and lose productivity at work. Some people may not remember waking up during the night, so if you know you have acid reflux and are constantly sleepy, consult a doctor.
Keeping your head elevated when you sleep. Gravity is your friend when it comes to heartburn. If you lie flat, acid is more likely to flow "up" from your stomach, entering the esophagus. Consider elevating your head with a foam wedge or putting bricks under the head of your bed to lift it at least six inches off the floor.
Stopping smoking. Tobacco smoke can trigger the production of stomach acid and relax the sphincter that connects the esophagus to the stomach, which can aggravate reflux. As if you needed another reason to quit.