Guide to Understanding Heartburn
Many of us are all too familiar with that uncomfortable, burning sensation that creeps up within the chest like a volcano. But, while chronic heartburn sufferers may instantly recognize the symptoms of the common digestive condition, not as many are aware of how it starts and what causes it.
How Heartburn Happens
Heartburn occurs when stomach acid backs up into the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach (esophagus).
Normally when you swallow, a band of muscle around the bottom of your esophagus (lower esophageal sphincter) relaxes to allow food and liquid to flow down into your stomach. Then the muscle tightens again.
However, for some people, the muscle may open too often or not close tight enough which causes acid in the stomach to flow back up into the esophagus. Since your esophagus doesn’t have the same protective lining that your stomach does, the acid can irritate its more sensitive tissues, triggering heartburn and discomfort.
Who’s at Risk for Heartburn?
Anyone can develop heartburn, but certain lifestyle factors affect how well the lower esophageal sphincter works, as well as the amount of acid produced by the stomach. Some common risk factors for heartburn include:
- Eating Large Meals
- Wearing Tight-Fitting Clothes
- Eating Acidic Foods
- Laying Down After Eating
- Taking Certain Medications
Is it Heartburn or GERD?
While infrequent mild, heartburn usually doesn’t pose a serious threat to your health, if you have severe heartburn or heartburn two or more times a week, you may have a condition called GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) and you should see your doctor.
Without treatment, chronic GERD can cause inflammation, ulcers, and scarring, and may raise the risk of esophageal cancer.
Common Heartburn Symptoms
Heartburn is usually the telltale sign of acid reflux and typically strikes after meals, causing mild to severe discomfort. Lasting from anywhere to a few minutes to several hours, typical symptoms of heartburn include:
- A painful burning sensation in the chest
- Sour-tasting fluid in the back of the throat
- Difficulty swallowing
- The sensation of food being stuck in the throat
If you have an occasional bout of heartburn, over-the-counter medications are often a quick and effective method of relief. However, heartburncan also be managed and/or eliminated with lifestyle and dietary modifications such as:
- Avoiding foods that are known to contribute including tomatoes, chocolate, fatty foods, and citrus fruits, and spicy foods
- Finish dinner at least three to four hours before bedtime and avoid late-night snacks
- Exercise regularly to maintain a healthy weight
- Limit alcohol and quit smoking
- Eat frequent smaller meals instead of three larger ones