When Holiday Overindulging Goes Too Far

The Differences Between Indigestion and Heartburn

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    Last night, I met a friend for plates of ridiculously delicious Mexican food (she ordered the burrito, I the fajita platter). After the waitress took our order, I pulled out my full-sized bottle of antacids. "I just can’t eat this type of food," I said after I shook a few down my throat.

    Fifteen minutes later my version of heaven arrived in the form of plates spilling over with peppers, onions, cheese, beans and chicken.

    Fast forward four hours, and suffice to say that much later that night, I felt nauseous. Like, extremely nauseous -- to the point where I vowed never again to eat Mexican food (which happens to be my favorite). 

    And I got to thinking, was that hour in heaven really worth it?

    Samuel P. Harrington, M.D., of Harrington & Loughney, M.D.s, P.C., at Foxhall Square, specializes in gastroenterology and has practiced at Sibley Memorial Hospital for more than 28 years.  He acknowledges that indigestion and heartburn are common, especially around the holidays when people -- admittedly, sometimes me -- are known for overindulging. 

    "Indigestion is a general term for many gastrointestinal symptoms, which includes general abdominal distress, minor alterations in bowel habits and queasiness, to name a few," said Harrington. Epigastric pain (discomfort located in the pit of the stomach, between the navel and the bottom of the breast bone) is a sympton of indigestion as well, he said.

    But what’s the difference between indigestion and heartburn? 

    Penn State Hershey Medical Center defines heartburn as a type of indigestion, which is a painful burning in the esophagus that may travel upwards to the neck or throat. After you eat, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) muscle at the end of the esophagus pinches closed. If the LES doesn’t close, then acidic stomach contents can reflux into the esophagus, and you’ve got the recipe for inflammation and irritation. 

    Certain foods relax the LES and promote acid reflux (and therefore heartburn). Alcohol, peppermint, tobacco and chocolate are among the heartburn-inducing culprits, Harrington said.

    Overeating, eating late during the evening, excessively consuming alcohol and smoking all exacerbate heartburn. 

    "The worst thing one can do is to have a peppermint chocolate dessert confection with an after dinner-drink and a cigarette," said Harrington -- "guaranteed heartburn."

    If you find yourself constantly popping antacids, make an appointment with a doctor. Why? Persistent reflux and regurgitation can cause damage to the esophagus and may eventually lead to gastroesophageal reflux disease, known as GERD. Ulcers and erosions may develop along with strictures, or narrowed areas that block large chunks of food.

    Even further, Barrett's Esophagus can develop, which occurs when stomach-like cells migrate up into the esophagus. These types of cells are more resistant to damage brought on by acid, and so this is thought to be the body’s response in protecting itself -- which can be a potential warning sign.

    "Unfortunately, a small percentage of patients with Barrett’s Esophagus will develop cancer in this segment," said Harrington.

    As with anything, moderation is key in combating indigestion and heartburn. Specialists at Penn State Hershey recommend eating smaller meals, losing weight and reducing stress. 

    So the next time you’re about to pop antacids because you associate your favorite foods with the likes of heaven (guilty as charged), think twice before overindulging. 

    "The pharmaceutical industry wants people to take acid suppression medications prior to overindulgence," said Harrington. "This is an acceptable strategy if one's goal is to gain weight and enrich Big Pharma."

    While my love for Mexican food stands, the next time I’m going to skip the over-the-counter meds and put my fork down after fajita number two. Even if I’m blissfully happy in rice-and-bean heaven, I'll listen to my body when it says, "Lisa, enough is enough."