That burning sensation in the center of your chest – it’s an awful feeling! Unfortunately, heartburn (also known as acid indigestion or gastroesophageal reflux) is also pretty common. Want to feel better? Here are some steps to take in the moment and ways to prevent it from happening again.
What Causes Heartburn?
Heartburn occurs when acidic digestive juices in your stomach splash up into your esophagus, the passageway between your throat and stomach. Your stomach has a special lining that protects it from those acids, but your esophagus doesn’t. That can cause an uncomfortable burning sensation in your chest, and possibly a sour taste in your mouth.
In some people, this happens because the valve between the esophagus and stomach (called the lower esophageal sphincter) isn’t working properly. Normally that valve seals shut after opening. But it can become relaxed and not close tightly, letting juices escape your stomach and seep up into the esophagus.
Are Some People More Prone to Heartburn?
Yes. A few things can cause the lower esophageal sphincter to relax. Those include being overweight or obese, smoking, and being pregnant (because of hormonal changes). Having a hiatal hernia also puts you at greater risk for heartburn. Some medications up your odds too, like NSAIDs, some asthma medicines, calcium channel blockers, and tricyclic antidepressants.
Which Foods Make Heartburn Worse?
Some foods and drinks trigger more of those acidic juices to form. These include caffeine and carbonated drinks, alcohol, spicy or greasy foods, chocolate, mint, tomatoes and tomato products, and citrus fruits.
What Can I Do to Prevent Heartburn?
If you’re experiencing heartburn, there are a few things to try:
- Avoid overeating. Instead, eat smaller, more frequent meals (every 2-3 hours). An overfull belly can cause that sphincter to become more relaxed.
- Take an after-meal walk. That may help keep the juices down in the stomach where they belong.
- Don’t eat dinner right before bed (or take an after-lunch nap). When you do sleep, try elevating your head. Let gravity help keep those stomach juices from splashing up.
Can I Take Medicine for Heartburn?
Yes. Antacids and other medicines may help relieve your symptoms. But some can interact with other medications you may be taking, so talk to your doctor first.
Is Heartburn Dangerous?
Not necessarily. While it may be painful, occasional, garden-variety heartburn isn’t harmful. But if your heartburn is persistent, it may be a sign of a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can cause more serious problems if untreated. So talk to your doctor, who can do tests to check for damage.
Also, keep in mind that heartburn can be a symptom of other issues, including a stomach ulcer and even a heart attack.
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