Has the festive season gifted you indigestion? Here's how to feel better
Heartburn, gas and an unhappy gut are common after the excesses of Christmas. Abi Jackson seeks expert advice for soothing those aches
With all that wine, chocolate and cheese, it's no surprise our systems might be feeling a little worse for wear by the end of the festive season. This might mean painful trapped wind, burning acid reflux and a less-than-happy gut for some of us.
"Indigestion symptoms can include fullness, bloating, nausea, belching, or pain in the upper abdomen," explains Phil Day, superintendent pharmacist at Pharmacy2U (pharmacy2u.co.uk).
"Heartburn can also be a symptom of indigestion - this is when stomach acid passes up into the oesophagus (gullet) and causes a burning sensation in the chest, hence the name. This process is also called 'acid reflux'."
So, what can you do about it?
Think about how you're sitting and lying down
Make sure you keep a good upright posture while eating and drinking - you want to help your food and stomach acids move downwards. If heartburn is playing up, pay attention to your body positioning between mealtimes too.
"Relaxation can help reduce heartburn but slumping on the sofa in a horizontal position isn't great," says Day. "Sit up, or at least try and raise your head and upper body, so it will be harder for stomach acid to travel upwards. If it's an ongoing problem, you can buy wedge-shaped pillows for your bed."
Rob Hobson, head of nutrition at Healthspan (healthspan.co.uk), says sleeping position can make a difference too.
"If you do go to bed suffering with heartburn, try sleeping on your left-hand side, as this works with gravity to move reflux back down into the gut," Hobson advises.
Over-the-counter formulas can bring relief
Most of the time, a pharmacist is an ideal first port of call if you want advice on easing symptoms.
"There are several medicines you can buy without prescription that will help," says Day. "The most common are antacids, which neutralise excess stomach acid to stop it irritating the oesophagus.
"There are also medicines such as Gaviscon that form a raft on top of the stomach contents, which then lines the oesophagus to protect it."
If you're interested in herbal remedies and supplements, Hobson says: "Supplements such as Healthspan GastriSoothe (above, £12.95 for 24 sachets, Healthspan.co.uk) offer a natural remedy for heartburn, using ingredients such as aloe vera and bicarbonate of soda. Also, artichoke extract has been shown to help ease indigestion and bloating."
Fresh mint tea, he adds, can be helpful for easing bloating and gas - but avoid this if you've got heartburn or acid reflux.
Tweak your habits
"Heartburn can be minimised by limiting your alcohol intake, avoiding food within three to four hours of bedtime, eating smaller meals but more frequently, and keeping away from foods or drinks that you know will trigger you," says Day.
Hobson agrees it's a good idea to consider what's on your plate.
"Very rich and heavy foods contain high amounts of saturated fat, which take a long time to digest in the stomach. This can cause an excess of stomach acids which can exacerbate heartburn," he says.
"Try opting for lighter dishes as well as chewing your food more slowly, which can help. Certain foods can also help with digestion, such as eating papaya (above) after a meal rich in protein, as the enzyme papain helps to break it down."
Never ignore worrying chest pains
Indigestion can sometimes be very sore and alarming, especially if you're experiencing pain in the chest area, and it's not unheard of for people to mistake a severe case of indigestion for a heart problem. But that said, the best advice is always to err on the side of caution and let the professionals check you over. If you're concerned about unusual, severe or worsening chest pains, don't take chances.
And of course, if pain is spreading to other areas (arms, neck, jaw, back) and there's also breathlessness, cold sweat or dizziness, call 999 just in case.
"If you experience abdominal or upper chest pain, it might be indigestion, but it might not be. If you have been eating rich food and drinking alcohol, there's a good chance it could be indigestion or heartburn," says Day.
"But if you experience symptoms such as difficulty swallowing, feeling like you have food stuck in your throat, being sick, or if non-prescription medicines are not working, consider contacting your GP or calling 111 (the NHS 24-hour helpline) for more advice. The advisers at 111 can help you decide if you should visit your local A&E department."
See your GP if symptoms persist well into January or beyond.
Indigestion and heartburn may take a few days or weeks to settle and it can be a chronic problem for some people. This doesn't automatically mean there's anything serious going on but as a general rule, you should see your GP if symptoms persist.
"Indigestion and heartburn are usually temporary problems. However, if you experience them regularly - that is, on most days, for a period of three weeks or more - you should talk to your GP to rule out any other possible underlying causes," says Day.
"If it is indigestion or heartburn, GPs can prescribe stronger medicines to control the excess acid. If not, or if the medicines don't help, the GP will recommend further tests to work out how best to help you."
Think about giving your gut a reset
If your gut and digestive system are feeling out of whack, there may be a few things you can do to help restore balance. Generally speaking, our guts tend to be happiest with a varied, balanced diet with plenty of fibre and veg. Remember to drink plenty of water as well to keep well hydrated.
A high-quality pre and probiotic supplement could help top up and rebalance your gut bacteria as an additional supportive measure, and getting outdoors for a good walk can help things along.