This page consists of a series of articles which go some way to explaining what heartburn is and how you can treat it. The first and possibly most important fact about heartburn is that it is not a heart condition, so if you are suffering, do not fear a heart attack. Heartburn is a digestive condition.
Heartburn (acid reflux) is becoming a serious medical problem in today’s society. Though not necessarily dangerous, acid reflux has the potential to cause significant discomfort in a way that can drastically reduce your quality of life.
What is Heartburn?
If you often find yourself reaching for the bottle of antacid after a meal you may be well acquainted with the painful effects of heartburn. Often triggered by spicy or heavy foods, heartburn is caused by stomach acid entering the esophagus, creating a burning sensation, or the feeling of chest pain. It is very uncomfortable, and a widespread problem that many people must overcome.
Heartburn is when the acids in your stomach get stuck in the esophagus. After eating, the body normally transports that food down into your stomach and digests it accordingly. But those with acid reflux find that their stomach is unable to contain the acid, and it moves up the esophagus and possibly gets in the throat.
Over time, the acid starts to create a burning sensation right near the heart, which is why it is known as “heartburn.” Acid reflux can also exist even without this burning sensation. Symptoms may include:
- Chest pains
- Sore throat
- Trouble swallowing
Heartburn is technically a symptom of acid reflux and refers solely to the burning sensation in the stomach. But due to its noticeability as a symptom it is occasionally used as a synonym for acid reflux and GERD.
One in 10 Americans experiences heartburn symptoms at least once a week, according to Webmd.com. Consistent heartburn, left untreated, can result in serious health complications, so it’s important to see a doctor who can help you manage your chronic pain and discover the source of the problem. Persistent heartburn may be a sign of a more serious condition such as acid reflux or GERD, so make sure to visit your doctor immediately if you experience symptoms on a regular basis.
Causes of Heartburn
There are many causes of heartburn, and it is typically caused by several triggers. Genetics, diet, stress and medicines can all serve as triggers. More obvious causes are due to poor dietary choices though, like eating greasy pizza and drinking beer right before going to bed. Proper eating habits are an essential component of managing heartburn, but sometimes medication is also necessary.
Simply overeating is a major issue, as too much food in the stomach and esophagus will push its way back up. But the main cause of persistent heartburn is a weak esophageal sphincter. Normally this sphincter is able to close enough to hold in the acids in the stomach, but a large percentage of the population has a weak sphincter or eats foods that weaken the sphincter, including:
- Fatty foods
- Spicy foods
- High acid foods
GERD, which is the term for chronic heartburn sufferers, doesn’t have a cure, so generally the way people manage their heartburn is by cutting out trigger foods. In many cases, basic dietary changes can reduce the likelihood of heartburn symptoms.
If you’re experiencing symptoms, consider enlisting the help of a Registered Dietitian to develop an eating plan that will reduce the frequency and severity of your painful episodes.
How do you know if it’s heartburn?
- Burning sensation
- Stomach pain
- Chest pain
- Swallowing difficulties
- Heartburn may result in a sore throat or hoarseness
If the pain is accompanied by light-headedness, dizziness, shortness of breath and other pains, seek immediate medical attention, as these may be indicative of a more serious illness or injury.
Heartburn is really, for most people at least, a result of poor diet and lifestyle. By making some changes to what you eat and how you eat, plus some other lifestyle factors, you should be able to eliminate heartburn completely.
Change your diet
Avoid citrus, fatty, and spicy foods. Even caffeine, mint and chocolate can worsen heartburn symptoms.
Change your schedule
Eat small meals throughout the day. Heavy meals can cause heartburn symptoms to flare up.
Even a few extra pounds can put undue pressure on your abdomen, increasing the severity of your symptoms.
Smoking can exacerbate heartburn symptoms by weakening the valve between the esophagus and the stomach and by reducing saliva production, which contains a natural acid-fighting ingredient called bicarbonate.
Cut back on the booze
Alcohol is a major trigger for painful episodes of heartburn. It’s best to cut back as much as possible to eliminate esophagus irritation.
Wait awhile before snoozing
Wait at least two hours before lying down or going to sleep after eating.
Luckily, heartburn is very easy to treat, and with a few simple changes, the pain can also be controlled. Severing your ties with alcohol and chocolate may seem difficult at first, but they could greatly reduce your heartburn symptoms. A combination of lifestyle changes and medication is the only sure-fire way to put out the fire in your chest and avoid painful episodes of heartburn.
Another method that can help to relieve heartburn is to sleep in a slightly elevated position. An adjustable bed can help you to achieve this.
An Adjustable Bed Can Help Relieve GERD
Guest author Daniel C. Fitzgerald provided the following advice on behalf of Adjustabeds.com.
How GERD Affects Your Sleep
Millions of people experience occasional heartburn that can cause difficulty sleeping. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 15 million people suffer from persistent or chronic heartburn, typically a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). There are differing degrees to which people experience heartburn and GERD, but some common symptoms include a burning sensation or pain in the chest or throat, the bitter taste of acid, and frequent belching and regurgitation.
Many GERD symptoms are caused by a relaxation of the sphincter that separates the stomach from the esophagus. Stomach acid flows upward into the esophagus, damaging its lining in the process. Along with a variety of other risk factors, eating “trigger” foods is often responsible for heartburn and GERD symptoms, while certain lifestyles behaviors and other risk factors can increase someone’s chances of suffering from GERD.
Heartburn and GERD can have quite a negative effect on your quality of life. People often experience symptoms at night, especially when lying down. They also usually suffer from discomfort while sleeping, and they wake frequently. A 2005 survey of people with GERD found that 55% complained of difficulty sleeping.
The average person spends about one-third of his or her life in bed. The effects of not getting a good night’s sleep can carry over into the next several days, negatively impacting your mood, your energy level and even your work or school performance. Furthermore, you are more likely to suffer from aches and pains, such as headaches and backaches, which result from your discomfort and inability to sleep.
How Adjustable Bed Frames and Mattresses Can Help
One advantage of sleeping on adjustable bed frames is that your body remains straight, which relieves pressure on the abdomen and chest. Second, your upper body is elevated, keeping acid in the stomach and preventing it from traveling up the esophagus and into the throat.
Using pillows alone to raise your head has been deemed ineffective by most GERD experts. Some doctors recommend placing wedges under the mattress or blocks under the head of the bed, in order to help you sleep upright. Wedges under the mattress can be uncomfortable, however, and the mattress itself might not bend very well in order to accommodate the wedge underneath. On the other hand, an adjustable bed can help you achieve the proper elevation without causing you discomfort.
Additional Suggestions for Coping with GERD:
- Wear loose-fitting clothing, especially when sleeping, so that your abdomen is not constricted.
- After eating, wait a minimum of three hours before lying down.
- Don’t eat too close to bedtime. You might have to give up that bedtime snack, and try to eat your last meal at least two hours before going to bed.
- Sleep on your left side to relieve some pressure on your abdomen while digesting.
In addition to helping people who suffer from GERD, adjustable beds have many other health benefits. They can help with breathing difficulties such as sleep apnea and snoring. When your heart remains above your legs, you can avoid circulation problems, as well. Adjustable beds are also recommended for people with arthritis, because sleeping upright or nearly upright distributes your body weight more evenly. Furthermore, many adjustable beds have heat and massage options to help make sleeping an even more pleasant and therapeutic experience.
Heartburn and Stress
Guest author Ryan Rivera provided the following advice on behalf of www.calmclinic.com.
Stress Creating Heartburn
Unfortunately, not everyone cutting out some of their trigger foods experiences this decrease in heartburn symptoms, and one of the theories for this is that stress and anxiety seem to contribute to an increase in heartburn related symptoms.
Research has shown that those that experience an increase significant anxiety and stress appear to report an increase in acid reflux symptoms. It’s believed that this issue is actually caused by three problems:
- Increased Stomach Acid – There is some evidence that during periods of extreme stress, the body increases its production of stomach acid.
- Slowed Digestion – Generalized anxiety disorder also appears to slow down digestion dramatically. This is because anxiety overwhelms the brain and takes resources away from the parts of the brain that control digestion.
- Subjective Experience – Studies have also shown that anxiety and stress increase the subjective experience of acid reflux. Not everyone with stress experiences an increase in acid, but they may notice the heartburn more and find it more distressing, despite nothing changing physically.
It’s for these reasons that decreasing stress should play a significant role in reducing heartburn.
Perhaps even more interesting is that heartburn itself can actually increase anxiety and stress as well. Some of the symptoms of acid reflux (chest pains, heart palpitations, etc.), are known triggers of anxiety attacks, and long term pain also seems to result in an increase in anxiety symptoms. Heartburn can also make it harder to sleep, which is necessary for controlling anxiety.
So while stress can lead to heartburn, heartburn can also lead to stress. Some people may even develop a vicious cycle where the two contribute to each other.
Control Stress and Make Lifestyle Changes
Heartburn isn’t necessarily dangerous, and although there are risks to long term heartburn symptoms, the main issue comes from the way it disrupts your day to day life. You’ll want to control heartburn not because of your health, but because heartburn makes life worse.
So while that generally means cutting out trigger foods, it also means making important lifestyle changes that can help you stop anxiety and stress. Maintain an acid reflux fighting lifestyle, and your ability to enjoy the day will improve.
Citations and Research:
- Heartburn (accessed 09 Apr 2012)
- How Common is GERD? (accessed 09 Apr 2012)
- Tips for Sleep Without Heartburn (accessed 09 Apr 2012)
- Understanding Heartburn and Reflux Disease American Gastroenterological Association. (accessed 09 Apr 2012)
More Resources on Heart Burn
- Heartburn, Also called: Acid indigestion, Pyrosis - MedlinePlus
- Heartburn and Gastro-oesophageal Reflux - BSG.org.uk
- Heartburn (Acid Reflux, GORD, Oesophagitis, etc) - Patient.co.uk
- Heartburn/GERD Health Center - WebMD
- Heartburn Foods - AskMen.com
- Heartburn–the acid test by Joelsson and Johnsson, Gut 1989;30:1523-1525 doi:10.1136/gut.30.11.1523
This page was written by Jon Wade, principal author and editor of Medimise.