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How not to throw caution to the wind during CNY

Rich food, late nights and too much alcohol can wreak havoc on the gut, resulting in festive "bloat"

Who can say no to New Year goodies? But ditching normal eating habits and rest routines to eat, drink and make merry can take its toll. Common symptoms of indigestion include gastric burning discomfort, stomach fullness, heartburn, belly bloating and excessive gas.

CHINESE New Year is always a time for reunion and gathering. Friends and family members whom we have not met for the past one year will gather around the dining table or on other occasions, celebrating the get-together with plenty of good food and drinks.

From the succulent and juicy bak kwa to a variety of hot-off-the-oven cookies, this is the period for indulgence and most people will consume more than their usual allowance. With a visit to your neighbourhood supermarket, you can't help but notice plentiful, towering food items and stacks of beer on display with some almost as tall as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. All of these tell us that we have been overconsuming during the festive season.

Not to mention that some of us will sacrifice our rest periods during the festive holidays for activities such as staying out late or playing long mahjong sessions, all these accompanied by an endless supply of drinks and titbits during the sessions. These can by themselves cause fatigue and stress to our bodies.

For what all these excesses inflict on our bodies, I am reminded of The Wind Beneath My Wings, a beautiful and touching song of the 1980s. However, if it feels like tonnes of wind are building up in your abdomen, it can be quite distressing and uncomfortable.

This is what happens when we ditch our normal eating habits and rest routines to eat, drink and make merry. Other common symptoms of indigestion resulting from overeating are gastric burning discomfort, stomach fullness, heartburn, belly bloating, excessive gas (belching or passing wind) or changes in bowel habits (either passing more or less often than normal).

The indigestion is caused by a complex interaction of psychosocial and physiological factors. Overconsumption of certain foodstuff can cause dysfunction to the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in difficulty in processing food and acid reflux.

The physiological stress from inadequate rest and anxiety can produce certain chemicals in our bodies that control nerve signals between the brain and digestive tract. This, in turn, makes the stomach and intestines hypersensitive and overreactive to stimulation.

Studies also show that gut bacteria played a role in the alteration of the microbiome in the bowels in these conditions. So, what should I do if I am troubled by indigestion? The good news is that, if the symptoms are mild and have recent onset after your overeating habit, it will most likely resolve in a short time even without medical attention and the prognosis is generally good.

Certain measures will help you in relieving the symptoms. Here are some of the tips on dietary and lifestyle changes which may help you:

* Avoid eating too much and too fast. Eat several small meals instead of two or three large meals. In this way, your stomach will not need to work as hard.

* Don't skip a meal and always take your meal on time. Just like sleeping, your stomach needs a routine on when to work and rest.

* Try to avoid eating too much fatty or fried foods. Oily food can slow down the stomach emptying and keep the food longer in your stomach, causing the feeling of stomach fullness.

* Certain foods may worsen indigestion. You may want to cut down the intake of coffee, spicy foods and foods that have high amounts of acids such as citrus fruit and tomatoes.

The food triggers vary from one person to another and it's a good idea if you can keep a food diary so that you can figure out which foods cause the indigestion symptoms later.

* Eating healthy diets that include more roughage from fresh fruit and vegetables.

* Don't lie down right after eating. Wait for two to three hours after your last meal before going to bed. Avoid late-night supper. These measures will help in preventing acid reflux.

* Cut back on alcohol consumption. Not only can alcohol irritate the stomach lining, it can also cause diarrhoea and worsen acid reflux as it relaxes the valve between the oesophagus and the stomach.

* Quit or reduce smoking as it can irritate the stomach lining.

* If fatigue and stress are the triggers, try to have a normal sleeping habit and also learn new methods for managing stress, such as relaxation and biofeedback techniques.

* If indigestion is not relieved after making these changes, you may try certain over-the-counter medications such as antacids to alleviate your symptoms. Antacid neutralises stomach acid and may provide quick and temporary relief to gastric symptoms.

What if the condition does not improve?

Even with the correct measures, the symptoms can persist in a small group of people. If your condition lasts more than a few days, or if it is severe or worsens noticeably, you should consult your doctor.

Indigestion is a symptom rather than a disease. Other medical conditions can produce symptoms which are similar to the stomach and bowel hypersensitivity, for instance, inflammation or ulcers of the stomach or colon, medication side effects (painkiller such as non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs) and Helicobacter pylori infection.

You should seek medical care immediately if you have any of the following symptoms such as vomiting blood, trouble swallowing, weight loss, black, tarry stools or visible blood in stools, as these may point to the presence of underlying medical conditions which need immediate medical attention.

Your doctor may suggest certain investigations to look for the underlying cause such as a blood test, Helicobacter pylori testing, abdominal imaging or upper and lower endoscopy to look closely at the insides of the stomach and colon.

Just like other modern diseases, indigestion is commonly related to our lifestyles and eating habits. In this regard, living healthily is the mainstay and will go a long way in addressing these issues.

This series is produced on alternate Saturdays in collaboration with Singapore Medical Specialists Centre