Heartburn is a painful type of indigestion that can feel like burning in your chest or throat, which you might experience after eating a meal.
The symptoms can range from an occasional and mild sensation that only lasts several minutes, through to a painful and debilitating condition that lasts hours and can severely impact your quality of life.
What causes heartburn?
- Heartburn is caused by stomach acid splashing up into your esophagus – which is a tube that connects the back of your throat to your stomach.
- Acid is only able to splash into the esophagus when a ring of muscle around the stomach entrance – called the ‘lower esophageal sphincter‘ (‘LES’) – fails to close.
- Heartburn affects around 20% of the US population and causes almost nine million outpatient visits in the United States each year.
- Common causes of heartburn are diet, lifestyle choices and some types of medication.
How can I stop getting heartburn?
Despite heartburn being common, there’s still a lot of misinformation about its causes.
Here’s a roundup of five proven ways to reduce your chances of experiencing heartburn.
1. Eat foods that are unlikely to cause heartburn
Simply avoiding foods that tend to cause heartburn is an easy first step.
It’s no secret that your dietary choices can have an enormous impact on your overall health and wellbeing – and your digestive system is no exception.
Fried, fatty foods are some of the worst offenders, as they take long time to digest – which causes your stomach to produce more acid, increasing the risk of heartburn.
And it’s not just fast food that can induce heartburn
Some ‘healthy’ foods can have high levels of malic and citric acid.
These substances – along with spicy foods – can cause an overproduction of gastric acid, which can creep back up the esophagus and trigger heartburn.
Foods that can cause heartburn include:
- Fried & fatty foods
- Citrus fruits such as grapefruits and lemons
2. Avoid eating shortly before bedtime
Eating shortly before bedtime or a nap can cause heartburn.
Your body struggles to digest food when you’re lying down, as gravity can pull your stomach’s contents backwards and towards your esophagus – provoking heartburn.
This diagram shows how acid reflux occurs and should provide a clearer explanation.
Research suggests that lying down is especially likely to cause heartburn in anyone with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
- A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that GERD subjects who went to bed within three hours of eating were significantly more likely to experience heartburn than those who waited four hours after dinner to lie down.
So if you want to enjoy a nap after dinner on Christmas day, maybe try taking it on a comfortable chair!
3. Avoid overeating to help you avoid heartburn
Avoiding heartburn isn’t just about what you eat, but how you eat.
Eating large meals can stretch your stomach – which increases pressure on your LES and allows stomach acid to enter your esophagus1.
Overeating any type of food can cause heartburn – even if it’s ‘esophagus-friendly’
So avoid huge meals and eat smaller meals spread out throughout the day to reduce your chance of heartburn.
4. Don’t consume too much alcohol
Alcohol is a common heartburn trigger for a couple of reasons.
- Ethanol (the compound present in alcoholic beverages) is known to cause your LES to relax2, which makes it easier for stomach acid to reflux back up into the esophagus and induce heartburn.
- Drinking even a small amount of alcohol causes the body to produce more gastric acid than usual – which can also cause heartburn.
Interestingly, research suggests that alcoholic beverages with low ethanol content, such as beer and wine, provoke a far stronger release of gastric acid than drinks containing a high concentration of ethanol.
Image Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1374273/
5. Check your medication choices with a doctor
Certain medications can affect the esophagus and either cause or exacerbate heartburn, including3:
- Acetylsalicylic acid (ASA)
- Bisphosphenates used to treat osteoporosis
- Calcium channel blockers (blood pressure medications)
- Iron and potassium supplements
Some chemotherapy drugs may also contribute to heartburn.
This list of medications isn’t exhaustive – and you should get professional medical advice from your doctor if you have any concerns.
Understanding your heartburn triggers
Understanding what causes heartburn and taking a preventative approach to potential heartburn triggers can do wonders for your digestive system.
You can reduce the chances of stomach acid leaking into your esophagus by implementing a range of adjustments into your lifestyle.
From eliminating foods and medications that cause heartburn to being conscientious of portion sizes and meal times, you have the ability to make a positive impact on your health and wellbeing.