Ask someone what heartburn feels like and you are likely to see them bring a fist to their chest and grimace; it's a symptom more than a condition and it can make you feel like you're going to spew molten lava at any moment.
The epicenter of the problem is the juncture between the stomach and the esophagus, the gastroesophageal sphincter. During normal digestion this band of muscle relaxes to allow swallowed food to enter from the esophagus into the stomach and contract when it is done. The stomach contains gastric juices, hydrochloric acid and enzymes that begin the process of digestion. When the sphincter pressure is lax, it causes the backflow of acid into the esophagus. It can cause burning pain or worse, damage sensitive tissue not accustomed to coming into contact with caustic stomach contents.
Some regurgitation of stomach contents is normal. But excessive reflux of acid can cause the lining of the esophagus to erode and ulcer (esophagitis) that may, in some people, cause permanent changes to the cells. This condition is known as Barrett's esophagus and in rare cases, it can progress to cancer. Beside heartburn, symptoms of esophageal damage may include regurgitation, difficulty swallowing, persistent cough, hoarseness and chest pain. When heartburn attacks occur more than twice a week, doctors call it gastrointestinal reflux disease or GERD.
Some medical conditions can cause acid to escape: hiatus hernia, a condition that causes the head of the stomach to protrude through the sphincter; motility disorders that delay the movement of food through the GI tract; and other conditions that cause low esophageal sphincter pressure.
Keeping these symptoms at bay means identifying what causes the sphincter to perform poorly. Not all strategies will work on everyone, but most people will benefit from some lifestyle modifications.
Here are some ways sufferers can extinguish the fire of heartburn.
Keep Food Court
Mealtimes are a battleground for sufferers who must constantly analyze the fire-provoking potential of foods. Acidic foods can be irritating to the sensitive lining of the esophagus and some can lower sphincter pressure. Common culprits are citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, onions, carbonated beverages, spicy foods, fatty or fried foods, coffee, tea, caffeinated beverages, chocolate and mint. Some people have proposed that Himalayan salt reduces acid.
Gauge Pressure Points
Although heartburn does occur in skinny people, abdominal fat and overeating can put undue pressure on the stomach forcing contents upwards. If symptoms coincided with recent weight gain or if you are overweight (BMI, 25.0-29.9) or obese (BMI, ?30.0) losing 10 lbs can offer up some relief. You might also try consuming smaller and more frequent meals rather than one big one. Keep belts lose and avoid restrictive clothing and undergarments.
Hang up the Habit
Cigarette smoking can cause acid to linger and decrease pressure in the sphincter while smokers' cough increases belly pressure by forcing acid upward. Alcohol consumption may bring on GERD by increasing the hormone responsible for stimulating gastric juices as well as lowering sphincter pressure and relaxing the stomach muscle so it slows emptying. Click here for tips from Dr. Oz on quitting smoking.
Shift and Lift
It is not uncommon for people with GERD to experience heartburn at night. Try shifting your dinner hour up to avoid eating within 3 hours before bedtime and don't lie down after meals. Try elevating the head of your bed with 2, 10-inch blocks to use the power of gravity to keep acid down and sleep on your left side versus the right to relieve pressure off the gastroesophageal junction.
Walk and Chew Gum
Chewing gum increases the production of saliva that can neutralize acid. Do it while you are walking and it clears acid even more. Plus, walking is just plain good for you.
*You may not know if heartburn is a heart attack in disguise. People with heartburn can be having a heart attack, and people having a heart attack, may experience heartburn. Distinguishing between the two is difficult. Pay attention to when the attack occurs and how you feel. If you are getting it 30 to 45 minutes after a meal, it is probably heartburn. Heart attacks often occur with activity or exertion and many people have a feeling of impending doom when they are having a heart attack.
Symptoms of a heart attack include the following:
- Sudden pressure, tightening, squeezing or crushing chest pain
- Pain that radiates to the back, neck, jaw, shoulders or arms, particular the left side
- Shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, nausea or stomach pain