Have you gotten to the point where reaching into the medicine cabinet for your over-the-counter antacids is a daily activity? If heartburn has become part of your everyday life, you should take a closer look at what you’re eating, when you’re eating, and a few lifestyle choices that could be contributing to your discomfort. While heartburn is certainly normal from time to time, with 60 million adults in America experiencing it at a minimum of once a month, it doesn’t have to be.
What Causes Heartburn?
While the symptoms of heartburn might be familiar to many, the cause might not be. Heartburn is best described as a burning sensation in the chest caused by stomach acid traveling the wrong direction in your gastrointestinal tract. Also referred to as acid reflux, this condition is common and not a huge cause for concern if you experience it a couple of times a month. However, if you begin experiencing more intense or more frequent symptoms, you might be suffering from a more serious condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Heartburn and GERD both originate in the same area of the body and can be traced to the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The lower esophageal sphincter is a vital portion of the esophagus and serves as a small flap on the top of the esophagus at the base of your throat. When you’re eating, the flap opens, allowing food to pass through, then closes when the food moves on through the rest of your digestive system. For those who suffer from frequent heartburn or GERD, the LES isn’t functioning properly. If the LES doesn’t close after eating, your stomach contents, including stomach acid, travels back up into your throat. This is what causes the burning sensation in your chest and throat, as well as the common sour taste.
Can Heartburn Be Prevented Or Avoided?
For most people, the answer is yes. While heartburn is caused by a malfunctioning lower esophageal sphincter, it’s aggravated by what you eat, drink, and certain lifestyle choices you make. You should take all of the following into consideration if you’re trying to avoid heartburn.
Your Weight - Heartburn is more common in obese or overweight individuals. This could be caused by excess belly fat pressing on your stomach. It can also be aggravated by a hiatal hernia, which is more common in obese people. Hiatal hernias occur when the upper part of your stomach bulges through the large muscle between your stomach and diaphragm.
Pregnancy - Many women experience heartburn during pregnancy. While they might not suffer from it in their everyday lives, the changes in hormones, as well as the weight and size of the baby, can affect their body and cause heartburn. If you didn’t suffer the symptoms of heartburn prior to your pregnancy, you are likely to experience a decline in the symptoms after delivering your baby.
What You Eat - What, when, and how you eat are all important. You are more likely to experience the symptoms of heartburn if you overeat, so stick to smaller and more frequent meals throughout the day instead of large meals. Eat earlier in the day, with your last meal being at least three hours before bedtime as your stomach acid production is the highest in that time frame. Certain trigger foods that make heartburn worse can include spicy foods, fatty foods, citrus fruits, fried foods, and acidic foods.
What You Drink - Frequent heartburn sufferers should stick to plain water. Carbonated drinks, soda, alcohol, fruit juices, and coffee can all be causes of heartburn.
Lifestyle Choices - If you smoke, consider quitting that habit as it can irritate your LES and make your heartburn symptoms worse.
Medications - Certain medications can make heartburn worse. If you’re taking a regular medication to treat an unrelated illness or condition, make sure you talk to your doctor about it.
When Should I See A Doctor?
You shouldn’t worry too much if you are an infrequent heartburn sufferer. But if you have started experiencing the symptoms of heartburn more frequently, you should book an appointment to visit our office. Make sure to moderate your use of over-the-counter medications, as taking them for a long-term unsupervised by a doctor can be dangerous. Depending on the severity and frequency of your heartburn, our physicians at Carolina Digestive Health Associates can discuss both lifestyle changes or medications to treat it.