For many people, Christmas is a time for making merry and enjoying festive meals with friends and family. Over this period, we might eat and drink more than we normally do, so it’s no surprise that many of us experience some form of indigestion as a result. The condition is very common, usually mild, and will go away of its own accord.
What is indigestion?
Indigestion (dyspepsia) is the name given to a range of symptoms that are usually experienced after eating and drinking. There may be pain or discomfort in your upper abdomen, or there could be a painful burning sensation behind your breastbone (heartburn). Your stomach produces acid naturally during the digestion process. Heartburn is caused by this acid passing from your stomach into your gullet (oesophagus) – this is called acid reflux. You could have both dyspepsia and heartburn at the same time, or just one of them. Other associated symptoms include feeling very full or bloated, feeling nauseous, belching or passing wind, or regurgitating bitter-tasting liquids or food into your mouth.
Whether you experienced indigestion last Christmas and want to avoid it again, or you get regular symptoms, there are lots of things you can do to help yourself. Follow our guide to the 10 lifestyle changes that could eliminate your indigestion in the long term, or minimise its impact on your life.
1 Eat mindfully
Modern life is busy and we’re always rushing around to fit everything in, especially at Christmas! But it’s important to slow down and make the time to eat your meals mindfully. This means that you’re fully focused on your food, and that you’re aware of the different flavours and textures – doing this will help you to consciously slow down. Aim for at least 20 minutes if possible. Remember to chew each mouthful of food thoroughly before swallowing for the best chance of good digestion.
2 Have smaller meals
Eating large, heavy meals can easily overload your digestive system. This Christmas, try to reduce your portion sizes, especially for the main festive lunch. This will also help if you need to lose weight and it should be easier to do at more normal times of the year. From Boxing Day onwards, take advange of leftovers to have smaller meals.
3 Get the timing right
If you work long hours and don’t usually eat your main meal until late in the evening, your food won’t be digested by the time you go to bed. Whenever possible, try eating your main meal at lunchtime instead which will give your digestive system a head start. If that’s not feasible, aim to have eaten at least two to three hours before bedtime.
4 Keep a diary
Indigestion affects people in different ways, and the triggers vary as well. It’s a good idea to keep a diary of what you eat and drink, noting down anything that seems to set off your indigestion or makes it worse. You could also record any instances where something has helped to lessen your symptoms, for example, eating earlier in the evening, eating more slowly, or having smaller meals.
5 Cut back on fizzy drinks, coffee and alcohol
Fizzy drinks are a definite no-no if you suffer with indigestion because they instantly make you feel bloated. It’s also known that coffee can make indigestion worse, so try alternating between coffee, herbal tea or plain water. The same is true if you regularly binge-drink alcohol in a single session because it increases the acid in your stomach; try to cut back so that you only drink alcohol moderately.
6 Avoid spicy, rich or fatty foods
Foods that are greasy or high in fat stay around in the digestive system for longer because they are more difficult for the body to digest. For this reason, it’s better to eat lean meat and fish, and to grill rather than fry when cooking at home. Many people who suffer with heartburn find that spicy foods are a trigger, while others can eat them without any problems. That’s why it’s useful to find out what your own triggers are.
The prevalence of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) increases with age (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence)
7 Maintain a healthy weight
Being very overweight or obese can cause havoc with your digestion because the excess fat around your belly area puts pressure on your stomach, which can cause heartburn. This is particularly noticeable after a large meal. Losing weight will improve your overall health, not just your digestion, easing the strain on your joints and improving your circulation.
8 Reduce stress
You may not realise it but your digestive system reacts when you’re experiencing stress or anxiety. That’s why good mental health aids good digestion and why reducing stress as much as possible is key. If you’re struggling, try using an app for meditation and mindfulness, for 10 minutes a day. This can help you manage stress more effectively so that it has less impact on your digestion and your health overall.
9 Avoid anti-inflammatory painkillers
If you have indigestion regularly, it could be caused by taking some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and aspirin, which can affect your digestion. Ask your pharmacist for advice about alternative painkillers. Remember, never stop taking prescribed medication unless a GP, pharmacist or other qualified healthcare professional advises you to do so.
10 Stop smoking
If you’re a smoker and you regularly suffer with indigestion, particularly acid reflux, it’s highly likely that the two things are connected. Smoking is known to weaken the muscular valve at the end of the oesophagus, letting stomach acid travel the wrong way back up. Ask your pharmacist about the support available to stop smoking and this could solve your indigestion problems for good!
How your pharmacy can help
There’s usually no need to see a GP if you have indigestion, but you can get expert help on dealing with the symptoms by visiting your local pharmacy. The qualified staff there can offer advice and support, including how to incorporate lifestyle changes to achieve long-term relief from indigestion. In addition, they can check whether any medication you’re currently taking could be contributing to the problem.
Pharmacy staff can also advise whether taking over-the-counter medication such as antacids would help you. Antacids are designed to neutralise stomach acid to relieve pain from indigestion and heartburn. Although they will work for a few hours, they will not resolve the cause of your indigestion and should not be taken regularly. If you’re pregnant, indigestion is very common and the pharmacist can suggest the best medication to alleviate these painful symptoms during pregnancy.
You should see your GP if you’re having to rely on antacids for a long period, especially if you keep getting heartburn; this is called gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) and it’s treated differently to ordinary indigestion.