Friends and family may soon wish you “Happy Thanksgiving,” but it’s likely no one – other than a gastroenterologist – will wish you a “Happy GERD Awareness Week.” And yet, the two holidays coincide. Coincidence?

Perhaps not.

GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, can cause an unpleasant burning sensation in the chest. It’s often associated with overeating – a time-honored tradition on “Turkey Day.” GERD is incredibly common; it affects one in five adults in America. And its symptoms often go unrecognized and undiagnosed.

Some traditional Thanksgiving foods exacerbate GERD symptoms. So, what better time to look into GERD’s causes, symptoms and treatments? We checked with Samantha "Sam" Spain, a registered dietitian at Novant Health Bariatric Solutions in Kernersville, North Carolina to get the scoop on GERD.

What exactly is GERD?

GERD is gastroesophageal reflux disease. Basically, it’s when stomach acid flows back into the esophagus.

What does that feel like? Can somebody tell when that’s happening?

It’s uncomfortable. You'll sometimes hear people say they feel a burning in the chest – kind of like heartburn, which is actually one symptom of GERD. Sometimes it’ll be chest pain, or people might have difficulty swallowing. There can be chronic coughing or a chronic sore throat associated with it, as well.

Is it the same thing as acid reflex?

No, but acid reflux can progress to GERD.

Who is susceptible to it?

People who are obese are more susceptible. Pregnant women are susceptible. Sometimes things like a hiatal hernia can cause GERD. And smokers can also be susceptible. It occurs in men and women, and it can occur in children, too.

Aside from being uncomfortable, are there long-term dangers associated with it?

It can lead to long-term difficulty with swallowing. Over time, if it’s uncontrolled, it can actually damage the esophagus, which can lead to more serious conditions like ulcers, bleeding of the esophagus and sometimes even cancer.

Does it happen during a meal? Right after a meal?

It could happen during a meal. But, most people will complain about experiencing it following a meal. It’s related to the digestion process. It can even wake you up at night.

Are certain foods likely to trigger it?

Oh, definitely – high-fat foods, alcohol, coffee, chocolate, citrus. Sometimes, onions. Definitely spicy foods, as well.

Any Thanksgiving foods that could be triggers?

The biggest culprit with Thanksgiving is overeating. Also, alcohol intake, which may be higher during the holidays, and then high-fat foods – things like desserts, casseroles, gravy, sauces, fried foods.

Prevention is generally the best medicine, so what can we do to reduce the risk of GERD?

Portion control is definitely a big one. Think about slowing down the eating pace. People can develop a better understanding of what fullness feels like.

Consider alternatives – lower-fat cooking methods, for instance. Or, instead of mashed potatoes made with heavy cream and gravy on top, you could do something like oven-roasted potatoes. Instead of green bean casserole topped with fried onions, try sautéed green beans.

Do you have any healthy Thanksgiving recipes to share?

I do. There’s an awesome website I go to a lot – I recommend their lightened-up green bean casserole and bite-sized pecan tarts.

If somebody were to lose weight, eat healthier and get more active, could GERD go away on its own?

Yes, there are definitely some people who can alleviate GERD with lifestyle changes, weight loss, increased activity level, things like that. There are some over-the-counter treatments that can help manage symptoms. But there are times you may need additional medical treatment, including prescription drugs.

And would that start with their primary care doctor?

Yes, definitely.

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