Do you stretch out on the sofa after a big meal? Do you eat your dinner within two or three hours of going to bed?
Either of those habits can strain your digestive system, and here is the major reason to stay in an upright position after eating. It prevents heartburn, or acid reflux, which can sometimes escalate into gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD.
Heartburn is notorious for igniting that burning sensation in your chest, just behind your breastbone, and it tends to feel worse when you lie down. Heartburn occurs when stomach acids irritate the lining of your esophagus.
It might be from something you ate or from a stressful situation, but those are just two possibilities. In the digestive process, perhaps your stomach is overproducing the needed acids, or maybe you have a weak lower esophageal sphincter, the opening that is supposed to prevent stomach acids from reentering your esophagus.
In any case, you are not doing your digestive system any favors by immediately lying down after a meal.
Here are the rules from the American College of Gastroenterology: “Avoid lying down for two hours after eating. Do not eat for at least two hours before bedtime. This decreases the amount of stomach acid available for reflux.”
To drive home the point about not making either “food comas” or late-night eating a habit, here are a few alarming conditions that can arise from repeated heartburn:
*Esophageal stricture, or narrowing of the esophagus from scar tissue, leading to difficulty in swallowing
*Esophageal ulcers, or open sores that can bleed and cause pain
*Barrett’s esophagus, in which changes to the tissue in the lower esophagus can be early signs of cancer
By the way, the scientific term for a food coma is postprandial somnolence, that feeling of sapped physical and mental energy after a big meal, say, a bowl of pasta or a heaping plate of French toast.
Writing in the Scientific American, scientist Paul Li from the University of California at Berkeley says that any large quantities of food can send you into postprandial somnolence, but the usual instigators are carbohydrates, fats and sugars.
He explains that eating stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, with one of the messages to your body being, “Slow down, I need to focus energies on digestion.” Also, your brain is producing serotonin and melatonin, which promote drowsiness.
Luckily, many people make it a habit to take a short walk after a big meal instead of succumbing to a food coma. It’s a good pretext for adding a bit more activity to your day. In fact, easy movement, such as a stroll around the neighborhood, often helps prevent flatulence and bloating.
Enjoy your yummy meals, at restaurants or at home. Just remember that they send your digestive tract into “all systems go,” and a bit of alertness on your part will keep digestion humming.
“Heartburn.” Mayo Clinic. Web. 18 Jan. 2012. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/heartburn-gerd/DS00095
“Bloating, belching and intestinal gas: How to avoid them.” Mayo Clinic. Web. 18 Jan. 2012.
“Acid Reflux.” American College of Gastroenterology. Web. 18 Jan. 2012. http://patients.gi.org/topics/acid-reflux
Li, Paul. “Why do I get a slump in mental energy after eating a meal?” Scientific American. Web. 18 Jan. 2012.
“GERD.” Mayo Clinic. Web. 18 Jan. 2012. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/gerd/DS00967/DSECTION=complications
Reviewed January 19, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jessica Obert