If you’ve ever felt a burning sensation in your chest after eating, there’s a good chance it was heartburn. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, more than 60 million Americans suffer from heartburn every month, while 15 million experience it daily.
Heartburn is not a disease but a symptom of problems that deal with the way your body digests food. Most of the problems are just annoyances, but if they become severe or last too long, it can be a sign of a worse condition like gastroesohageal reflux disease (GERD).
So the question most people ask is how do you know if what you’re feeling is heartburn, and if it is, what can you do to make it better?
Why Heartburn Happens
When you eat food or drink liquids, they move from your mouth down your esophagus and through your digestive track. At the end of the esophagus is a muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). Its job is to open up and let food into your stomach and then close so it can’t come back up. From there, the digestive acid in your stomach breaks down the food into nutrients your body can absorb.
If your LES muscle gets weak or doesn’t close tight enough, it can allow food or stomach acid to flow back up from your stomach into your esophagus. This is called acid reflux, and it can cause the burning sensation most of us associate with heartburn. (Note: Some reflux is normal, and your esophagus usually clears it up immediately.)
While there are a variety of things that can cause heartburn, the symptoms people have tend to be similar:
- Burning sensation in the chest and throat
- Pain that gets worse at night
- Pain that gets worse when you bend over or lie down
- Sour taste or bitter taste in the back of your mouth or throat
Things That Can Cause Heartburn
Heartburn seems to be a response to several factors:
- When the LES is put under pressure, it can allow contents in the stomach to come out. The pressure can come from being overweight, pregnant, or overeating; or actions like lying down, bending over, or exercising.
- Certain foods or medications can increase the amount of stomach acid produced. Or they can weaken the LES so it doesn’t close tightly. The list is long and different for everyone but alcohol, caffeine, carbonated beverages, whole milk, and foods that are greasy, spicy, or acidic are common triggers.
- Other physical problems in the digestive tract or abdomen. Inflamed stomach lining, ulcer, or hiatal hernia (a weakness in the diaphragm that lets a part of the stomach push up into the chest) can cause heartburn.
- Stress and/or lack of sleep can change the digestive process, increase the amount of stomach acid the body produces, or lead to abdominal muscle tension that can cause or worsen heartburn.
Heartburn Remedies You Can Try
Almost everyone experiences occasional heartburn. But that doesn’t change how unpleasant it can be. Here’s a list of things you can try to make it better:
- Maintain a healthy weight. Extra weight can put pressure on your abdomen causing acid to back up into your esophagus.
- Limit food and drink that can cause heartburn: fatty foods, fried foods, alcohol, chocolate, garlic, onions, tomato sauce, and caffeine.
- Quit smoking if you smoke. Nicotine is a LES-relaxer.
- Aim for at least eight hours of sleep a night and reduce the amount of stress in your life. (Read: 4 natural solutions to help you sleep better and 7 ways to manage your stress levels naturally)
- Consider modifying your exercise routine. If you’re not exercising right now, start. It helps with digestion and stress reduction. Avoid high impact exercises that put pressure on your stomach or make you gulp air.
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals instead of larger ones to avoid stomach pressure.
- Try sleeping with your head and chest elevated by inserting a 6-inch wedge under the head end of your bed if heartburn bothers you at night. Gravity can help keep stomach acid where it belongs.
- Avoid wearing clothing that’s tight and puts pressure on your waist.
- Experiment with natural or close-to-natural aids: chewing gum to help clear acid, ½ teaspoon of baking soda in a glass of water to neutralize acid; the herbal remedy Slippery Elm to create a stomach barrier against acid. (Note: Some people have found these remedies to work, but there might not be research to back them up. They should only be tried for a short period of time. If symptoms persist it’s time to talk to your doctor.)
- Try over-the-counter relief with antacids to neutralize acid (Tums or Maalox), but pay attention to the warning signs and don’t overuse them.
When to See the Doctor
If you experience heartburn more than a couple times per week and the remedies listed above don’t work for you, it’s time to make an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor might also refer you to a gasterointestinal (GI) specialist for endoscopic evaluation.
It’s also important to understand that the symptoms of heartburn and heart attack can be similar. If you have pain in your chest and you don’t know if it’s from heartburn or not, call 911 immediately. For more information about heart attack symptoms in men and women, read this article from our blog.
The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.