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“Indigestion,” Victor Hugo said, “is charged by God with enforcing morality on the stomach.” That’s a bit harsh, especially at holidays, when the temptation to gorge on all sorts of sinfully rich goodies is almost irresistible. But there’s wisdom in what the great French novelist and legendary gourmand said, as generations of dinner-table revelers can attest. Just ask Nick Loss-Eaton, an otherwise healthy nurse practitioner in Boston, who, after several stress-filled family gatherings, only recently learned that when the holidays roll around, he can go home again. “My indigestion would make me so irritable,” he says. “I couldn’t even enjoy holidays with my family.”
Join the club, Nick. One in three Americans suffers from some form of indigestion, a cluster of unpleasant symptoms rather than a condition with a fixed set of causes. Known outside of medical schools by various names, often used interchangeably if imprecisely, indigestion can take the form of heartburn, acid reflux, upset stomach, dyspepsia, tummy ache or even agida, typified by nausea, bloating, cramping, belching and gas—which are not only personally uncomfortable but can lead to social ostracism if not outright exile.
Indigestion must be an everyday annoyance because even medical dictionaries define it in terms any layman can understand. “Inability to digest or difficulty in digesting food,” says one typical reference work, “digestion” being the process by which food is made absorbable by “breaking it down into simpler chemical compounds that occur in the living body, through enzymes secreted into the alimentary canal.” The most common cause of indigestion is probably heartburn, which the American Academy of Family Physicians says 50 percent of us experience at least once a month; 7 percent deal with it daily. Twenty-five percent of pregnant women have it every day—and there are days their husbands probably have it pretty rough as well. Heartburn, the most easily identified as well as most common digestive disorder, can announce itself as a sensation of scalding in the throat or chest that only you know about, though other forms can make themselves known through a growling in the gut that diners three tables away can hear. Heartburn occurs when acids defy gravity by leaking upward from the stomach into the esophagus; “acid indigestion” takes place farther south, when acids burn into the stomach or duodenum, sometimes so deeply a peptic ulcer forms.
What’s Eating You?
In most cases, of course, people don’t stop to figure out what’s eating them, so to speak. They simply react by reaching for over-the-counter antacid tablets that can offer temporary relief but may mask symptoms of digestive problems or even serious underlying illnesses, including “food sensitivities, overproduction of acids or even a weak barrier between the stomach and the esophagus,” according to Kasra Pournadeali, ND, director of the Northwest Center for Optimal Health in Edmonds, Washington.
Most of the time, you don’t need a medical diagnosis to figure out what’s wrong, so long as you respond to your symptoms sensibly and monitor your progress, or lack thereof. Unless your digestive problems are serious ones, most discomfort can be prevented or eased through relatively minor dietary adjustments because the causes are so easily controlled. Simply put, indigestion is usually caused by eating too much or too quickly, gorging on fat-laden, processed foods that are difficult to digest under the best of circumstances or eating during stressful situations. That’s why indigestion, by any name and almost every form, surely spikes this time of year, when tensions run high and sweets beckon. Even after holidays have come and gone, these preventive approaches and natural remedies are good to remember and apply, if only to improve overall digestive health. But first, what’s wrong with antacids? Nothing, so long as they are taken on occasion and only to ease fleeting discomforts of an otherwise healthy digestive system. Over time, antacids can lull the stomach into reliance on them to lower its acidity, rather than regulating its own acidity. Antacids can also interfere with the body’s absorption of vitamins, minerals and medications.
The Bitter End
For immediate relief, look to herbal remedies, which stimulate saliva and digestive juices, from three main groups.
Bitters. A liquid combination of up to 23 herbs, barks, flowers, seeds, roots and plants best known as a flavoring for cocktails and aperitifs, bitters soothe the stomach by neutralizing acids. Bitters also reinforce the stomach lining, which helps in digesting heavy foods. Try eight or ten drops in a half cup of water after meals. Salads made with bitter greens—dandelions, watercress and mustard greens—can have a similarly soothing effect.
Carminatives. Rich in aromatic oils, carminatives stimulate the digestive system, reducing inflammation, soothing the stomach wall and helping with the removal of gas from the digestive tract. Carminatives include peppermint, spearmint, chamomile, ginger, fennel and caraway and stimulate the release of digestive enzymes.
Demulcents. For many indigestion sufferers, the answer may be at the grocery store, in the form of black licorice or coated ginger candy. Both contain demulcent herbs, which stimulate the secretion of mucin, which helps the stomach absorb acids. Other demulcents include slippery elm and bladderwrack, which, despite its menacing-sounding name, actually soothes the abdominal regions. Some indigestion sufferers find helpful commercially manufactured lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacteria, which normally inhabit the small and large intestinal tracts, respectively. Taking these supplements can restore the balance between the two forms of bacteria, easing digestive problems. If symptoms persist, a more serious problem may exist, and a doctor’s visit is recommended. For such ailments, digestive specialists often turn to Gastro-Ease, an herb-based supplement founded on a traditional Chinese medicine manufactured by Boston’s NeoConcepts. For those whose digestive tracts have been damaged by antibiotics, causing diarrhea, some rely on Lactobacillus GG, a supplement manufactured by Culturelle.
Of course, most indigestion problems can probably be prevented, especially those that afflict us around holiday time, when dietary prudence too often goes out the holly-bedecked window. It is often useful this time of year to look for wisdom from those whose experience guided us in the past, like Miss Piggy. “Never eat more than you can lift,” she once said. This is well worth remembering next time you gape, eggnog in hand, at a table sinking under the weight of gooey fudge brownies, snickerdoodles, gingerbread men, chocolate-covered peanuts, Rice Krispies Treats, krumkake, candy canes, baba au rhum, pecan tarts, cheesecake, springerle, popcorn balls and baklava, in the center of which sits an enormous, glowing, candlelit bûche de Noël. Overindulge? Moi?
Just Slow Down
One thing you can do to prevent indigestion is eat sensibly and avoid foods and drinks that are known to cause problems. You may want to monitor your indigestion episodes, so you can determine what foods––or what non-dietary conditions––may trigger them. If you find it impossible to predict their occurrences, you may need to see a doctor. In any case, it is always advisable to go easy on the alcohol. But the same is true of caffeine and carbonated beverages. Even the most innocent soft drink can slowly eat away at the lining of your stomach and allow your digestive tract to fill up with excess gas. Smoking is also bad for you, for obvious reasons and some that are not so obvious. Nicotine, for example, coats the stomach with a resin that prevents your system from completely absorbing nutrients. It also increases stomach-acid levels.
Above all, just slow down. Eating at a more leisurely pace not only allows you to enjoy a food’s flavor, it also reduces the amount of excess oxygen taken into your digestive system. Learn to pace yourself, even after pushing away from the table. “I like to plan some downtime after my meals, especially if I know I will be tempted by rich holiday food,” Loss-Eaton says. Don’t lie down, though. Gravity helps keep stomach juices under control, so standing up—maybe clearing the table of dishes, guys?—is preferred to taking a nap, however seductively the La-Z-Boy beckons. Finally, consider that indigestion often has as much to do with how you prepare yourself mentally for the holidays as it does with what you eat. Expectations can run unrealistically high at these times of year, when extended families re-assemble for sometimes-frantic merrymaking, only to disperse days later, when the presents are opened and the bills come due. For all the surface good cheer, tensions still run high, and age-old hurts and animosities can surface during a hard-fought football game on TV or over a disputed recipe in the kitchen. That’s another good reason to avoid alcohol, which can bring out the worst in otherwise good people, and caffeine, which can make anyone jumpy. Holidays should be holy days, when a spirit of forgiveness, geniality and benevolence prevails. That requires a modicum of discipline on the part of most of us, and this discipline should apply not only to how we treat others but also to how we treat ourselves. So, go easy on yourself this season. Don’t abuse your body either by overindulgence or by pushing yourself so relentlessly in planning for the perfect Martha Stewart holiday that you give yourself an ulcer. Above all, allow yourself to enjoy the bounty before you, taking care not to spoil it for the people you love––or for that friend you’ll have for life, your long-suffering stomach. “Everybody in my family loves to wolf down food,” says Loss-Eaton, who is only now learning to pace himself so he can enjoy their company when he goes home to visit. “I mean, what’s the rush? We’re there to enjoy one another’s company, not race to see who can clean his or her plate the fastest, especially when the winner gets indigestion. That’s not a holiday gift I want.”
1/4 cup melted soy margarine or unsalted butter
1 cup graham cracker crumbs or other cookie crumbs
1 Tbs. plus 3/4 cup superfine sugar
1 1/2 lbs. low-fat cream cheese
8 oz. nonfat vanilla or lemon yogurt
3 large eggs
2 Tbs. cornstarch
1 Tbs. lemon extract
1 Tbs. vanilla extract
2 cups sliced fresh strawberries, sprinkled with sugar, optional
1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. Combine melted margarine, crumbs and 1 tablespoon sugar, stirring to combine well. Press mixture into bottom of 9- or 10-inch-deep pie plate. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove and cool on wire rack.
3. Meanwhile, in large bowl combine cream cheese and yogurt, and beat with electric mixer. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat well after each addition. Stir in sugar, a little at a time. Add cornstarch, lemon and vanilla extracts and salt, and continue stirring until smooth. Spoon into crust.
4. Bake for 45 minutes or until firm in center. Remove from oven and cool on wire rack; cheesecake firms as it cools.
5. When cool, slice and top with sugared strawberries before serving, if desired. Otherwise, refrigerate until ready to serve.
PER SERVING: 450 CAL; 14G PROTEIN; 24G TOTAL FAT (11G SAT. FAT); 42G CARB; 130MG CHOL; 440MG SOD; 0G FIBER; 33G SUGARS