You may experience painful sensations on watching the self-titled 1986 nail-biter with Jack Nicholson, but odds are if they occur in the chest area, there’s another culprit at work.
Heartburn is a term for the burning irritations that occur when stomach acid escapes through the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) valve that separates the stomach from the esophagus. That gross taste when you ‘mini-vomit’ in your mouth? That’s acid reflux at work, of which heartburn is a common symptom.
We all get a little heartburn action from time to time. The problem, and risks to your health, occur when heartburn happens with greater frequency. Stomach acid, by definition, should stay in your stomach. Trouble ensues when it doesn’t, with the pain and burning that moves up from your abdomen and into the chest area.
Some people even mistake heartburn for a cardiac event.
Heartburn won’t kill you. But if you’ve got the symptoms, or they’re getting worse, and they happen often enough to cause you grief, it’s time to pop the hood and look closer at heartburn and why it may be indicative of underlying health issues you shouldn’t ignore.
Just What is Heartburn Anyway?
Surprisingly, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. Rather, it’s a symptom of acid reflux, and specifically, gastroesophageal disease (GERD). You can also GERD by its other name, acid reflux disease.
Heartburn tends to start in the upper abdomen or below the breast bone. The ‘burn’ described in this often-experienced digestion problem refers to the pain caused by stomach acid where it shouldn’t be – namely in your esophagus – thanks to an LES that doesn’t close tight enough. This is especially common in pregnant women, with tremendous pressure placed on their stomach.
Other risk factors for heartburn include:
hormone replacement therapy
unhealthy eating habits
To clarify on the last point, you’re more likely to experience ongoing heartburn if you eat a high fat diet, large meals or lie down after eating. Basically, the stuff that goes on at the aptly named Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas, which recently lived up to its name twice in as many months.
Roughly 20% of the American population experience heartburn more than twice a week.
While the above mentioned factors increase your chances of this troublesome issue, certain foods are notorious for their distinct ability to loosen your LES. And though heartburn triggers can be unique to each patient, if any foods are going to cause heartburn, it’s the following prolific offenders:
black pepper, garlic & spicy foods
citrus fruits & products (including orange juice)
coffee and caffeinated drinks
As well, fatty foods are a common trigger of heartburn, as they sit in the stomach longer, forcing it to produce more acid for digestion. The LES, meanwhile, doesn’t function properly, with more pressure placed on the valve connecting the stomach and esophagus.
If you’re prone to heartburn, the single worst thing you can do is it quaff a large meal of fatty foods within an hour of bedtime.
Don’t Ignore Heartburn!
You don’t want to ignore heartburn. More than just a nuisance (and being painful), it’s often a precursor to more serious, occasionally life threatening health conditions you need to consider.
Put another way, heartburn is a wake up call; a sign from your body that all’s not well with your lifestyle and the consequences linked to it. You’re at even greater risk of esophageal damage from heartburn at night, when you’re lying down, with acid in your esophagus for longer and with less saliva to neutralize it.
You should speak to your doctor if you experience heartburn more than twice a week for the following reasons:
Esophagitis – Your esophagus isn’t designed to deal with stomach acid and food that escapes through your LES. Over time, this causes irritation and swelling, called esophagitis, that can scar and erode the inner lining. This happens sooner than you think – just several weeks of ongoing heartburn can start the process.
Esophageal Stricture – If things get out of hand with esophagitis, you may develop a stricture, in which your esophagus narrows, making it painful to swallow. Food can get stuck and require an endoscopy to get it out. You’re also at risk of choking with a stricture. Weight loss is common.
Breathing Problems – Patients with heartburn often inhale stomach acid. That in turn can increase risk of asthma and pneumonia. At the very least, ongoing heartburn can lead to shortness of breath.
Tooth Decay – Stomach acid may not belong in the stomach, but it doesn’t belong in your mouth either. Frequent exposure can wear away at the protective enamel on your teeth, made worse by the tendency not to notice the damage until its advanced stages. In a study conducted at the University of Alabama, 70% of reflux patients with advanced symptoms had significant tooth decay.
Esophageal Ulcer – The stomach’s not the only place where you can develop an ulcer. Heartburn patients are at a higher risk of an esophageal ulcer, characterized by bloody stool and vomit (heartburn ain’t pretty). These symptoms require an immediate trip to the hospital.
Got heartburn? Chew some gum. The saliva generated by your chewing can neutralize the stomach acid that makes its way into places it shouldn’t.
Barrett’s Esophagus – Give it time and ongoing heartburn (and reflux in general) can cause precancerous changes in the cells within your esophagus. A small but notable percent of heartburn patients will develop esophageal cancer, which is often deadly.
Esophageal Cancer – And speaking of cancer, our last stop on your joyride of the health risks linked to heartburn saw 16,640 new cases in 2010 within the United States. This happens over decades, but if you’re beyond 50, experienced years of heartburn and suddenly losing weight, high-tail it to your doctor mucho pronto.
Lower Quality of Life – Heartburn’s a stinger, with sleeping and diet problems combined with social and physical challenges that lower quality of life and require pricey heartburn medications. Frankly, it’s on par with diabetes and cancer on the miserable scale. Yes, heartburn really sucks.
But before you refill your heartburn prescription, or worse, buy proton pump inhibitors – don’t.
Don’t Abuse Proton Pump Inhibitors, Either
You can treat heartburn and reduce the impact it has on your life. But don’t do it with antacids or proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) as a long-term strategy
You’ve heard of those right? An antacid is a substance that neutralizes stomach acid, of which Tums and Alka-Seltzer are some of the better known examples. Moving higher up the chain you’ll find PPIs. These are drugs, available from your doctor or without a prescription. Brands include Aciphex, Prilosec and Protonix.
PPIs are stronger than antacids. They’re designed to reduce stomach acid, and in turn, relieve heartburn and other reflux symptoms. And on the surface, this appears to work. After all, with less stomach acid, there’s less to leak through the LES and into the esophagus. Right?
Er…Here’s the thing. Stomach acid may cause heartburn. But it’s also required to keep harmful bacteria under control. Those harmful bacteria? Salmonella, E.coli and, very notably, C.diff.
Reflux drugs, and PPIs in particular, are wildly popular. They’re the third best-selling drug in the United States, with 113.6 prescriptions written in 2009. And those don’t include PPIs bought over the counter.
Yet this surge in reflux drug use comes with a rise in deaths from C.diff-related diarrhea, which have tripled since 1999, at roughly 14,000 lives taken in the United States each year. PPIs also increase risk of fractures in women because they interfere with the body’s ability to absorb calcium. You’re also at higher risk of pneumonia on PPIs. And if you’re a frequent user, expect to shell out up to $2000 a year.
This doesn’t mean they don’t have their place. PPIs stop acid reflux symptoms and they relieve pain from heartburn and reduce risk of serious health conditions, including ulcers and Barrett’s esophagus.
But know what you’re getting into with PPIs. They’re meant for short-term use only. They’re not meant to mask heartburn as an excuse to indulge in fatty foods, eat large meals and live the lifestyle habits that trigger heartburn in the first place.
Fortunately, heartburn is a manageable issue. And you may find that with some simple changes in your diet and lifestyle, your symptoms let up or vanish completely.
You’ll be healthier too!
Good Heartburn Foods
You’ve seen the bad foods. Now let’s look closer at good heartburn foods. The kind that bring much-needed relief to a troubled tummy.
Remember that over-eating is a leading cause of heartburn, by the way, so indulge in these guys in smaller, more regular meals throughout the day, and you’re in better shape to keep Mr. Heartburn out of your ritual.
Oatmeal – To quote Wilford Brimley, “It’s the right thing to do”. So swap fat-rich doughnuts and related food porn for low-fat, high-fiber oatmeal for a heartburn-fighting start to your morning. Add sliced bananas, believed to fight excess stomach acid naturally, and you’ve got the makings of a healthy breakfast minus the heartburn.
Ginger – One of the best herbal treatments out there for digestion problems, steep 2 to 4 grams of ginger in hot water, chew it or add throughout your cooking. Just stay south of 4 grams of ginger each day or you risk making heartburn worse, not better.
Pasta – Swap tomato sauce for thin, broth-like sauces, served on fiber-rich whole wheat pastas for a filling meal if you’re prone to heartburn.
Beans – Heartburn doesn’t like fiber, and there’s plenty of that in beans. Add protein to that nutritional portfolio and you’ll quickly see that beans not only beat heartburn, they’re a healthier alternative to colon-cancer causing red meat.
Applesauce – There are good sauces and bad sauces in the heartburn scheme of things, and applesauce falls on the good side. Applesauce is surprisingly versatile, as a substitute for butter and oil, and can be used in place of both to satisfy your baking requirements, provided you’ve got the consistency.
And one more thing…
Got heartburn? Chew some gum. The saliva generated by your chewing can neutralize the stomach acid that makes its way into places it shouldn’t.
Heartburn Management Tips
There’s no way around it – to reduce heartburn and the impact it has on your life, you’ll have to make some adjustments. And admittedly they might sting a little. After all, it’s easier to pop a few PPIs to quell the heartburn from a burger washed down with cola and fries.
But that’s a dead end road. Heartburn, and the factors that cause it, lead to the health issues we’ve reviewed and a lower way of living. So buck up. Take a deep breath and embrace these heartburn management tips to banish heartburn from your lexicon completely.
Keep a Journal – Heartburn’s a personal thing, with triggers that can affect one patient and leave another unscathed So monitor your symptoms. Record what sets you off, the severity of the pain and your portion size prior. Be honest with how much, and what, you’re eating. Record your symptoms every day. You’ll soon see some patterns.
Eat Smaller, Frequent Meals – Stuff your face with big meals and you know where that goes. Eat 5 to 6 smaller meals rather than fewer large ones.
Don’t Eat Before Bed – Give your food at least two hours to digest before your date with the sandman.
Avoid Sit-Ups – Don’t do sit-ups and abdomen-related exercises if you suffer from heartburn. Also on that list are handstands, yoga, aerobics and leg-lifts. Experiment with your movements to determine what works and what’s out. And don’t exercise on a full stomach.
Don’t Be a Pill-Popper – Regular use of aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, blood pressure pills, pain-killers, progesterone supplements and a variety of prescription medication can all cause heartburn to raise its head. Take what you need and avoid what you don’t.
Watch The Booze – Alcohol does more than loosen your inhibition – it’s got this thing for loosening your LES as well.
Slim Down – You’d be amazed how many health issues would be alleviated simply with a body mass index (BMI) between 20 and 23. Obese folks are three times more likely to suffer from heartburn.
Don’t Wear Tight Clothes – Belts, buckles, undergarments and otherwise tight clothes can all push against your stomach and force acid, where else? Up your esophagus!
Sleep With Your Head Elevated – Heartburn at night poses an even greater threat to your health. You can alleviate some of that by keeping your head elevated 6 to 8 inches while you sleep. One study found this position can reduce the time required to clear acid from the esophagus by 67%.
Heartburn at night poses an even greater threat to your health. You can alleviate some of that by keeping your head elevated 6 to 8 inches while you sleep.
Don’t Smoke – Yes, I am officially trying to take all the fun out of life. Your body will thank you, however, with better lungs, clearer skin, good function of your organs and an LES allowed to do its job.
And of course, it goes without saying you should avoid your trigger foods. Now that you’re keeping a journal, you know what those are.
Natural Treatment For Heartburn
Lifestyle factors are a great start. Now for some back up for those days when heartburn’s being stubborn.
Anatacids and PPIs are fine on a short-term basis. But how’s your will-power – are you prepared to stay at a low dosage and use them temporarily? Or are you more inclined to pop those C.diff-proliferating PPIs when the going gets tough?
If that’s an up-hill battle, consider natural treatment for heartburn. In particular, check out Digestive Science Reflux Elimination System.
Why this route? One reason: it’s sustainable. Natural treatment doesn’t suppress stomach acid, rather, it’s designed to strike a delicate balance between the stomach acid your GI tract needs to kill dangerous bacteria and the digestive enzymes required to reduce excess acid from escaping your stomach.
All done naturally, with proven herbals and healers, including slippery elm, aloe vera, protease and the super-food chia for ongoing health of your GI tract.
A healthier, natural way to relief from heartburn. And worlds better than antacids and PPIs.
Consider this option if heartburn’s persistent. Stick to the habits we’ve discussed in this article. Avoid your trigger foods, keep a journal, and you’re in healthy shape to weather the storm that constitutes heartburn.