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Heartburn: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Heartburn
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What is Heartburn?

After a tasty and hearty meal, you may feel content and happy. That’s until you get heartburn that sends you running to the kitchen cabinet to get your antacids, moaning in discomfort.

Heartburn is a common feeling in many people. It’s an uncomfortable burning sensation in your chest, often with a sour taste at the back of the mouth, moving up from the throat.

Heartburn affects over 60 million Americans at least once every month (x). According to various studies, over 15 million people in America have heartburn symptoms on a daily basis (x).

While heartburn is usually caused by eating troublesome foods, it may also be a sign of certain medical disorders, including gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD for short.

Occasional heartburn can often be treated effectively with over-the-counter medications and tends to cause no lasting damage.

Over time, though, chronic heartburn can destroy your esophagus and exacerbate bleeding, promote difficulty swallowing or increase inflammation. If you experience heartburn regularly, it’s vital to seek medical treatment (x).

Heartburn Symptoms

The most common symptoms of heartburn are (x):

  • Stomach noises
  • Sour taste in your mouth
  • Dry mouth
  • Experiencing a horrible burning sensation in the chest, often just behind your breastbone (adjacent to the heart) after a meal
  • Having a difficult time lying down or sleeping due to pain
  • Gum irritation, including bleeding and tenderness
  • Tooth erosion
  • Swelling or pain in the throat
  • Bad breath caused by acidic foods being slightly regurgitated
  • Nausea and at times loss of appetite
  • Burping, bloating or releasing gas after meals

People with chronic, long-term GERD or heartburn are at a higher risk for severe complications, including Barrett’s esophagus, narrowing (stricture) of the esophagus, asthma, severe tissue scarring, hoarseness, chronic coughs and esophageal cancer (x).

Although heartburn is quite common in America and Western Europe, it usually causes no serious health issues. But the underlying reasons for struggling with heartburn are often associated with a bigger problem; dysfunction in the digestive system, particularly the gut.

Over time, if one doesn’t improve his or her poor gut health, this failure will likely lead to other symptoms, such as nutrition deficiencies, low energy levels and impaired immunity.

Heartburn Symptoms

Heartburn Causes

Different sources trigger heartburn in diverse individuals, so it may take a bit of trial and error to locate the exact cause of your particular symptom. However, there are various known lifestyle habits and food allergies that commonly cause heartburn symptoms in many people. They include (x):

  • Food sensitivities or allergies
  • High stress levels
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Being overweight/obese
  • Pregnancy
  • Poor diet — people who consume excessive caffeine, alcohol, high-sodium foods, processed foods, refined grains, sugar and chocolate embody the greatest risks for all forms of indigestion
  • Nutrient deficiencies, including low potassium levels or magnesium deficiency
  • Eating large meals instead of spacing out meals, especially if eaten close to bedtime
  • Taking certain irritating medicines, such as antibiotics, muscle relaxers, some blood pressure medications, ibuprofen and aspirin
  • Overtraining (excessive exercise without adequate rest) — overtraining and not getting enough rest can trigger acid reflux by placing undue pressure in the stomach cavity
  • Hiatal hernia — this is when your upper stomach protrudes over the diaphragm, which allows acid to escape
  • Older age — heartburn and gastrointestinal reflux disease are very common conditions seen in older people due to the stomach emptying and natural changes in saliva and acid production (x)

Heartburn Treatment

Most doctors recommend taking nonprescription antacids to help relieve symptoms of occasional heartburn. But with regular use, these pills may actually cause other serious digestive issues — or even issues like infection.

Taking an antacid normally provides quick relief from symptoms of heartburn. Common nonprescription antacids include:

  • Tums (calcium carbonate)
  • Maalox (calcium carbonate)
  • Mylanta (aluminum hydroxide, magnesium hydroxide, and simethicone)

While antacids can relieve symptoms, they won’t prevent the reoccurrence of heartburn and aren’t an effective solution for recurrent heartburn (x).

If antacids don’t work, or if you’re in need of long-lasting heartburn relief, you should consider taking nonprescription H2 blockers, which decrease the production of stomach acid. These medications include:

  • Zantac (Ranitidine)
  • Tagamet (Cimetidine)
  • Pepcid AC (Famotidine)

Proton pump inhibitors lower the production of stomach acid even more. Nonprescription options include:

  • Prilosec OTC (Omeprazole) (6,7)
  • Nexium 24HR (Esomeprazole)
  • Prevacid 24HR (Lansoprazole)

If you have frequent or severe heartburn, you may have gastrointestinal reflux disease and should see a doctor for an examination — even before you regularly start taking any nonprescription treatments.

You should see your physician about heartburn if:

  • Symptoms become more frequent or they worsen
  • You have pain or trouble while swallowing
  • You experience inexplicable weight loss
  • Your heartburn triggers vomiting
  • You suspect your heartburn is caused by a medication
  • Heartburn causes wheezing or makes you hoarse
  • Your heartburn symptoms get worse while using over-the-counter medications
  • The heartburn makes you uncomfortable and interferes with your everyday life

Your doctor may ask questions about your heartburn symptoms and what could be causing them, as well as perform tests to assess your gut and measure your acid reflux.

Besides recommending certain behavioral and lifestyle changes, your doctor can prescribe stronger prescription alternatives to over-the-counter medications that decrease stomach acid production.

Lifestyle Changes and Home Remedies for Heartburn

If you occasionally experience heartburn, there are many home remedies as well as lifestyle changes you can use to relieve your symptoms.

First, try cutting any potentially troublesome foods and drinks from your diet. Keep in mind that fatty meals and alcohol in general may be chief triggers for some individuals.

If you’re unsure what foods cause your heartburn, keep a journal of foods you consume and any heartburn symptoms you experience.

If taking food triggers out of your diet doesn’t alleviate your symptoms, you can try the following ways to change your eating habits.

  • Eat slowly in order to not overstuff yourself
  • Eat smaller meals
  • Don’t exercise immediately after eating
  • Don’t bend over immediately after eating
  • Drink warm caffeine-free drinks, such as herbal tea
  • Leave 3-4 hours between having a meal and going to bed or lying down

Other steps that can help alleviate your heartburn include:

Lose Weight

A sedentary lifestyle, obesity and nighttime heartburn or GERD symptoms are some of the major factors associated with serious esophageal and extraesophageal issues of heartburn (x).

Regular workouts (at least half an hour daily) can help you control your weight with more ease, lower inflammation, enable you to deal with stress and enhance your quality of sleep. But balance is essential, since excessive exercise can negatively affect the endocrine, nervous and immune systems, as can having too little time for relaxation or rest.

Don’t Smoke

Smoking is a major risk factor for heartburn, GERD and various other conditions (x). Smoking cigarettes and taking too much alcohol increases acid production and impairs reflexes, not to mention increasing inflammation and affecting digestion in various ways.

Try your hardest to quit smoking as soon as you can. Also avoid taking too much caffeine as it can hinder your digestion, too.

Stay Upright and Comfortable

While it may seem perfectly okay to lie down a bit after eating a huge meal, doing so can actually trigger heartburn. This positioning has to do with gravity. You don’t want gravity to work against you, so be sure to stay upright for 3-4 hours after eating.

Staying upright may help ease pressure on your stomach and gut. Also avoid wearing tight clothes to reduce pressure on these areas.

Chew Gum

Yes, that’s right!

Chewing gum can help relieve heartburn as it’ll cause more saliva production, which means more swallowing. This tactic will somewhat rinse off everything that’s happening back into your stomach.

In fact, one study found that chewing gum for 30 minutes after meals can help reduce symptoms of heartburn (x).

Relieve Stress

Try various techniques to relieve your stress, such as deep breathing, mediation or yoga. They should help to ease your heartburn symptoms.

Supplements for Heartburn

A properly working digestive system reduces the possibility of acid reflux, heartburn, LPR, GERD and a host of other digestive problems. A number of dietary supplements may help promote digestion and support digestive health, including:

Licorice Root Extract

Licorice is the magic herb with a legendary reputation in conventional Chinese medicine. It relieves acid reflux and heartburn symptoms, and can also help treat ulcers.

As a nutritional supplement, take 600 milligrams of licorice root extract daily, or according to your physician’s recommendations.

Papaya Fruit Extract

Papaya fruit helps promote digestive health and can have anti-inflammatory effects. It also promotes immune function as well as hair and skin health.

Take 1,000 milligrams of papaya fruit once or twice daily, or according to your doctor’s recommendations.

Ginger Root

Ginger extract is largely a natural anti-inflammatory that is perfect for relieving digestive distress and related problems. The root has gingerol, a bioactive substance with antacid and antioxidant effects.

Take 1,000 milligrams of ginger root extract once per day, or as instructed by your physician. To prevent heartburn, take it with lots of water.

Milk Thistle

Milk thistle is a natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant that supports liver function and heart health. It may also enhance skin health.

Take 250 milligrams of milk thistle extract daily, or as instructed by your doctor. You can take the supplement with or without meals.

Curcumin

Curcumin is a natural antioxidant with anti-inflammatory effects that promote overall health. Apart from its nutritional benefits, curcumin is also a culinary spice.

Take one dose of 1,000 milligrams daily, depending on your intended effect. Take it with a meal or water.

Magnesium

Magnesium oxide helps promote digestive and heart health. It’s also an antacid that can alleviate indigestion.

Magnesium oxide should be taken in one dose of 700 milligrams with water, or according to your physician’s directions. Take this supplement with food if you experience any stomach discomfort.

Peppermint Extract Powder

Peppermint extract powder is both a flavoring agent and herbal supplement. It may support digestive health and relieve heartburn, stomachaches and nausea.

Take 700 milligrams of peppermint extract once or twice a day, or according to your doctor’s directions. It’s best taken with food.

The Bottom Line

Heartburn refers to the burning feeling in the chest that often occurs with a sour taste in the mouth or throat. Symptoms may worsen when you are lying down or after you’ve had a large meal.

Heartburn symptoms are apparent when your chest burns as you bend over or lie down. These movements transfer your stomach acid up the food pipe. Also, your mouth may have an acidic taste or it might feel bitter.

Heartburn can be caused by various things and foods like spicy foods, citrus fruits, chocolate, alcohol, fatty foods, tomato products, onions and large meals. The risk of developing heartburn can also be increased by other conditions, including obesity and pregnancy.

Heartburn is usually no cause for concern as it normally clears up by itself or through medications and home remedies. If your heartburn lasts for longer than normal or you get frequent episodes of it, there could be an underlying cause. Make sure it’s checked by your doctor for appropriate treatment.

About the author

Haron Omaita


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