Heartburn alert! Just in time for Thanksgiving


November has been declared Heartburn Awareness Month. Before you celebrate with two tamales and a bushel of apple martinis, be aware of this: Heartburn is directly related to what you eat and drink. That means you’re in charge.

Overindulging in fatty food or drinking too many coffees and colas - guilty, but charged - causes heartburn in lots of people. And I mean lots. According to the National Heartburn Alliance - a group funded by (surprise) companies selling remedies for acid indigestion - heartburn affects more than 100 million Americans every month. If you’re one of them, digest the following:

Heartburn is preventable - without drugs

Heartburn - that unpleasant burning sensation in your chest or mouth that comes from too much stomach acid flowing into your esophagus - isn’t something you catch, like a cold. It’s a potentially serious problem that develops from lifestyle choices you make: what, when and how much you eat; whether you smoke or are obese; how you deal with stress; the kind of exercise you do. Lose weight, learn to meditate, eat smaller, healthier meals, stop smoking, and yes, you can throw those Tums away.

Learn your triggers

Stomach experts have a very good understanding of what foods can trigger heartburn: spicy foods, citrus fruits and juices, spearmint, caffeine and carbonated beverages, onions, chocolate and more. Sadly, stomach experts have very little understanding of what will make a heartburn sufferer give up those things - or, smartest of all, consume them in moderation.

“Getting people to change their behavior is very, very tough,” says nurse practitioner Wendy Wright, an active board member of the National Heartburn Alliance. “And yet, when it comes to preventing heartburn, diet, exercise and lifestyle can make a huge impact.”

To educate yourself, visit, but research herbal, non-chemical remedies for heartburn, too. I learned some very good stuff on, including the fact that, for some people, milk is a cause of heartburn, not a remedy, and for some people, eating apples and bananas could reduce heartburn. You have to find your own way, with your own trusted nutrition adviser. Relief from heartburn is a very personal thing, as Nora Ephron taught us years ago in her delicious book “Heartburn.”

Exercise can be good - or bad

Heartburn and exercise have a complicated relationship. On the plus side, as Nurse Wright has seen time and time again, exercise can reduce or even eliminate heartburn because it helps people lose weight and handle stress in a healthy way.

But exercise has a dark side, too. Sit-ups and crunches, for instance, can squeeze your gut and actually cause heartburn. So can certain yoga and Pilates positions that require you to lie on your back. Exercises that cause you to be upright and bounce against gravity (jogging, aerobics, rope jumping) can also contribute to serious heartburn, and so might lifting heavy weights if it involves tensing your stomach muscles. “Don’t give up exercising” says Nurse Wright, but if it’s contributing to your heartburn, explore alternative ways to workout.

More appetizing advice from the Alliance:

  • Don’t exercise with a full stomach. Best to eat two hours before.
  • Dilute your sports drinks with water, so they leave your stomach faster.
  • Don’t eat right before going to bed.

Hardest of all to stomach
According to a Medco Health Solutions analysis reported on the Alliance’s Web site, the numbers of kids who are given drugs for heartburn and related conditions is skyrocketing. Consumption of heartburn-related drugs is up 56 percent between 2002 and 2006 for kids 4 and under; up 31 percent for kids ages 5-11. What’s going on here? Many docs, including Dr. Renee Jenkins, president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics, find this surge disturbing and unnecessary. While heartburn (and stomach reflux) is fairly common in infants and young children, most will outgrow it without drugs. She pushes smaller, more frequent meals and fewer fatty foods. But parents are looking for quick fixes. They see heartburn drugs advertised on TV - about every 30 seconds - and they want them for their kids. Doctors are going along. What’s next? Mylanta milkshakes? And what about the long-term consequences of heartburn meds on developing bodies? We don’t really know.

Energy express-o. Happy Thanksgiving.

“A little ginger is very helpful if you feel bloated after a big meal.” - Dr. Andrew Heyman

(Other non-drug aids to digestion include papaya, cranberries, cinnamon, cardamom, dill and yogurt, on a case-by-case basis.)

Marilynn Preston is a fitness expert, personal trainer and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues. She welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to