Cooper: Holiday Heartburn

For some folks, this is the season for popping a Tums, not a bottle of bubbly, in the hopes of avoiding heartburn after enjoying rich, holiday food. But just because you heard everyone joking about wearing stretchy pants to Thanksgiving dinner, doesn’t mean you have to feel that way – any time of the year.

“People can experience a variety of GI symptoms, and it’s easy to pass it off as normal,” says Donald McMahon, DO, a gastroenterologist at Cooper Care Alliance, a primary and specialty care group with Cooper University Health Care.

And sometimes they are, he says. A day or two of acid reflux, diarrhea, bloating or even vomiting isn’t cause for much concern. But if the symptoms stick around or come and go for weeks, months, or even years, it’s time to seek out your primary care provider.

“GI problems are not an overnight issue,” he says. “The symptoms build over time, and you have to pay attention to recognize the patterns.”

For someone who is lactose intolerant, it’s easy to see that dairy upsets your stomach, says McMahon. But for someone with Celiac disease or even an intolerance to gluten, it can be harder to realize that wheat is the culprit. And that can be dangerous if left untreated.

“Even certain sugars in fruits and vegetables can lead to abdominal bloating and pain for some people,” says McMahon. “Which is to say – everyone’s body is different. By paying attention to what you’re eating and how it makes you feel afterward, over time you and your doctor can see where the issues really lie.”

While some symptoms seem mundane, others can be warning signs for doctors. Trouble swallowing in the chest is more common than many people realize. If it’s accompanied by symptoms like unintentional weight loss or anemia, doctors may need imaging to make a further diagnosis. Because sometimes GI issues that people chalk up to food sensitivities are caused by more serious problems that go undiagnosed for too long, says Cooper Care Alliance General Surgeon Michael Sasso, DO.

“I’m always surprised how often gallbladder problems go undiagnosed,” says Sasso. “They’re very often mistaken for common indigestion, with symptoms like heartburn, acid reflux, bloating or belching.”

People can go for years without treating the root cause. The longer it goes untreated, the worse symptoms get, like intense abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting, especially for those suffering from gallstones. Some symptoms, like severe chest pain, may even be mistaken for heart issues.

Many gallbladder problems can be treated easily and effectively long before they become emergencies, he says.

“Early on, we can perform surgery with a minimally invasive, 30-minute operation,” says Sasso. “It’s a same-day surgery – in and out and recovered within a few days.”

An emergency surgery, on the other hand, requires a traditional operation with an incision, hospital stay and longer recovery.

“There’s no reason anyone should walk around with symptoms for years,” says Sasso. “Besides suffering longer than they need to, the longer they let it go, the more likely it is to become an emergency down the line.”

In the meantime, there are ways to find relief this holiday season.

“You don’t have to go on an anti-holiday diet, but you shouldn’t go overboard either,” says Sasso. “Limit rich, heavy and fatty foods that could trigger a GI issue or gallbladder attack, and make sure to make an appointment with your doctor in the New Year.”

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