Beware the holiday heartburn _ or is that a heart attack?

Thursday, December 23rd 2004, 12:37 pm
By: News On 6

For the tens of millions of heartburn sufferers, navigating the gluttonous dinner table during the holiday season can be especially tricky.

Heartburn tends to occur more frequently during the holidays because people feast more than they normally would. And the types of food they eat are decked with more calories and fat, which can slow digestion.

Take eggnog, the rich, creamy, liquor-laced drink that is often a staple at every family gathering and office party. Couple it with well-marbled meats, side dishes drizzling with rich sauces and lots of alcohol and you have the recipe for heartburn.

That doesn't mean you should swear off your favorite foods on Christmas Eve.

``You can make trade-offs that let you have the best of both worlds,'' said Pat Baird, a registered dietitian in Greenwich, Conn.

If you know ahead of time the party you're attending will feature heartburn-triggering foods, snack beforehand and graze at the party, but avoid the fat platters. If there is a dessert buffet, choose a sliver of something sweet instead of trying them all.

Alcohol tends to worsen heartburn, so if you must drink, think about diluting your wine or beer with water or club soda, Baird said.

More than 60 million American adults suffer from heartburn at least once a month. An irritating chest pain that starts at the breastbone and charges up the throat, heartburn can cause people to accidentally inhale regurgitated stomach acid.

Severe heartburn symptoms are sometimes confused with heart attacks, another holiday risk.

A study published in the journal Circulation earlier this month found that heart attacks and heart disease-related deaths tend to peak on Christmas, the day after, and New Year's Day. Researchers at the University of California at San Diego attributed the increase of cardiac deaths to people delaying medical treatment during the holidays.

People should make sure they know the difference between heartburn and heart attack symptoms and not automatically assume their chest pain is from overindulgence from food, said Dr. David Peura, chairman of the National Heartburn Alliance, who was not connected with the study.

Heartburn usually occurs after a meal. A heart attack is often activity-related. But if patients are unsure and their chest pain lasts for more than a few minutes, they should seek immediate medical attention.

The most common heartburn treatments are over-the-counter and prescription heartburn drugs. Pharmacies report a spike in the number of customers buying acid-blocking medications around the holidays, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association, which represents 25,000 independent pharmacies.

Brian Pinga, a 22-year-old student at the University of Buffalo, has been suffering frequent heartburn for two years. His normal diet is ``bland'' _ meaning no spicy foods and little alcohol, coffee or chocolate.

But Pinga admits it is tough staying true to his diet over the holidays when he is surrounded by family and friends indulging in all sorts of sinful foods. Last New Year's Eve, Pinga got carried away, drank too much and felt a ``stabbing'' feeling in his chest from heartburn.

``What people do during the holidays is a perfect set-up to provoking heartburn,'' said Dr. Mel Wilcox, a spokesman for the American Gastroenterological Association.

Overindulgence is not the only thing people should keep in mind in preventing holiday heartburn. Keeping stress levels low and exercising are also important. People should also avoid eating a few hours before bed and dozing right after dinner since stomach acid levels are higher after a meal and can migrate upward.