Despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. But, burn it does. This burning sensation that occurs in the chest afflicts millions of Americans every month. While it may be common, it’s important to know when heartburn can be treated on your own or when it merits a visit to the doctor.
What Causes Heartburn?
If you are experiencing heartburn, you need to treat its underlying condition: acid reflux.
The esophagus is the tube that carries food from the mouth into the stomach. The esophagus should be a one-way street, but with acid reflux, it’s not. Acid reflux happens when the contents of the stomach go back up into the esophagus. The stomach acid it contains creates unpleasant side effects like heartburn. There could be any number of reasons acid reflux occurs — certain foods, behaviors, or even physiological factors can come into play.
Foods That Cause Heartburn
Diet is usually the primary cause of acid reflux. Among the list of common foods that can cause reflux are:
- Fried foods
- Spicy foods
- Fatty foods
- Citrus or tomato-based foods
- Garlic or onions
- Caffeinated beverages
- Decaffeinated coffee or tea
- Carbonated beverages
These foods may cause acid reflux in a number of different ways, either by relaxing the barrier muscle (esophageal sphincter) between the esophagus and the stomach, irritating the lining of the esophagus, stimulating the release of the hormone cholecystokinin, taking too long to digest, increasing the level of stomach acid, or being high in fermentable fiber (FODMAP foods).
Foods that trigger acid reflux can differ from person to person. If you experience heartburn frequently, keeping a food diary will help to figure out your triggers.
Behavioral and Lifestyle Causes of Heartburn
If you want to eliminate heartburn, you have to look past just the foods you eat. There are other factors that contribute to the occurrence of acid reflux:
- Eating too much
- Eating too fast
- Lying down too soon after eating
- Taking certain medications
- Certain types of exercise
Physiological Factors that Cause Heartburn
There are physical factors or medical conditions that can exacerbate heartburn.
- Being overweight — excess belly fat creates extra pressure on the stomach, increasing the likelihood of reflux.
- Pregnancy — heartburn is a common in pregnancy, especially in the third trimester.
- Hiatal Hernia — a stomach hernia (when the stomach bulges through the diaphragm into the esophagus) allows acid to easily flow back up into the esophagus.
How Can You Treat or Prevent Heartburn?
Head to the drugstore.
The first thing most people do when they have heartburn is pop an antacid. This is effective for providing temporary relief or for treating infrequent heartburn. Other over-the-counter treatments are H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs).
However, for frequent or chronic heartburn, you want to think about what changes you can make to prevent heartburn in the first place.
Change your diet.
Replace foods and drinks from the list above with foods that are less likely to trigger acid reflux, such as:
- Lean meats and seafood
- Healthier fats like avocado oil or olive oil
Modify your eating habits and behaviors.
Slow down and enjoy your meal! Eat at least 2 hours before bedtime. When you do lie down, elevate your upper body and sleep on your left side.
Chewing gum for 30 minutes after eating can also help.
Some intense exercise — like running, weightlifting, and gymnastics — can make acid reflux worse. If you find that you have heartburn after exercising, try low-impact exercise like walking, yoga, swimming, or stationary biking.
Make lifestyle changes.
If you are overweight, lose weight. Even a small amount of weight loss can make a difference.
Smoking increases the risk of reflux. Stop smoking, especially if you also drink alcohol. Combining the two makes the risk of acid reflux much higher than either one on its own.
If possible, reconsider any medication or supplement you’re taking that is making reflux worse. Common offenders are aspirin, ibuprofen, antibiotics, iron supplements, antidepressants, and some blood pressure medications. Talk to your doctor to see what options you have.
When Should I See a Doctor About Heartburn?
If you have heartburn, you should see a doctor if you also experience:
- Pain when swallowing
- Sudden weight loss
- Chest pain or pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or weakness
- Increased frequency or duration of heartburn
Since heartburn can present as a symptom of other, more serious, conditions, you want to visit a doctor if you have any concerns at all. Recurring acid reflux can lead to long-term damage. A chronic case of acid reflux is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). This can lead to ulcers or a disease called Barrett’s Esophagus, and in rare cases, stomach or esophageal cancer.
Heartburn can sometimes be accompanied by stomach or chest pain. Since chest pain can also be a symptom of a heart attack, seek medical attention if you are unsure about your symptoms.
How a Doctor Can Help with Heartburn
When diet and lifestyle changes aren’t enough to reduce heartburn or other acid reflux symptoms, visit a doctor. Your local urgent care clinic is a great place to start. At In and Out Express Care, our doctors will review your medical history, conduct tests as necessary, and give you options for treatment. Treatment may include prescription medication, or in rare cases, surgery might be needed.
If heartburn is making you miserable, come in and see us. In and Out Express Care has four convenient urgent care clinics in Hampton Roads. We aim to make you feel better, fast!