You were so busy today that you missed lunch. (Oops.) And once you finally did sit down to eat, you ended up scarfing down your food in a matter of seconds. (Double oops.)
Now you’re not only stuffed but also feeling the burn — heartburn, that is.
If this sounds familiar, well, you’re not alone. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, more than 60 million people in the United States have heartburn on a monthly basis and around 15 million people experience it daily.
Still, though heartburn is common, it’s not something you have to live with.
Dr. Michael Saunders, medical director of the Digestive Health Center at UW Medical Center – Montlake, explains what causes heartburn and what you can do about it.
What is heartburn?
First, let’s straighten out some terminology.
Heartburn, that burning sensation you feel in your chest and throat, is the symptom of a condition called gastroesophageal reflux (GER), more commonly known as acid reflux.
This is when the contents of your stomach rise back up into your esophagus, the tube connecting your throat to your stomach, causing that uncomfortable and sometimes painful heartburn feeling. Other common GER symptoms include regurgitation of food or sour liquid in your mouth, a sore throat, difficulty swallowing and even chest pain.
If you have long-lasting, persistent acid reflux — at least once or twice a week — you may be diagnosed with a more serious form of reflux called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
“Not all substernal burning sensations are due to reflux, but true heartburn, often with a feeling of regurgitation up into the neck, is commonly due to GERD,” Saunders says.
How does acid reflux occur?
It may be difficult — not to mention unpleasant — to imagine the stuff in your stomach sliding back up, but it’s all just about understanding the human body.
Here’s how it works: The lower end of your esophagus is usually closed. When you swallow food, the muscles at the bottom of your esophagus relax and open, allowing the food to pass through and into your stomach.
When you experience acid reflux, however, your lower esophagus muscles are relaxing at the wrong time: when you’re not swallowing.
“These are relaxations that occur in the absence of a swallow, allowing the gastric contents to go back up into the esophagus,” Saunders explains.
Occasional acid reflux is common and not usually something to be worried about, but when it’s occurring frequently and severely — sometimes as a result of esophagus damage or chronic health conditions — it can progress to GERD.
What are common triggers of acid reflux?
If you experience acid reflux, don’t just fault your lower esophageal muscles. The blame actually lies with your stomach — more specifically, what you put in it.
“The most common trigger of acid reflux is stomach distension, and that’s often due to dietary concerns,” Saunders notes.
Typical culprits include overeating, eating too quickly and meals that have high fat content. Other factors include things like caffeine, alcohol and acidic or spicy foods.
Aside from what you eat and drink, certain anatomical conditions can also lead to increased acid reflux and heartburn.
Obesity is one common condition, Saunders notes, as the extra weight can put pressure on your abdomen. So is being pregnant, when hormones and your growing bump can throw things in your body off kilter.
Another trigger that you may not consider? Smoking.
“Chronic smoking can lead to a weakened esophageal sphincter muscle and takes away saliva, which is very important for esophageal clearing,” Saunders says.
How can you get rid of heartburn?
For most people, the simplest way to prevent acid reflux and heartburn is to change what and how you eat.
Start by consuming fewer trigger foods and sticking to more manageable meal sizes. When you do eat, try to take your time so you don’t get too full too quickly.
Saunders also suggests implementing a rule about not eating too close to bedtime, since laying down with a full stomach isn’t exactly going to help things.
“Letting your stomach empty before being recumbent is important,” he notes. “When you’re lying flat, gravity isn’t working for you.”
If you find that your still reflux occurs most often at night, you can try elevating the head of your mattress by 20 to 30 degrees using foam wedges so your upper body is on an incline. Pillows can also work in a pinch, but Saunders says you may accidentally roll off them in the middle of the night.
Taking antacids can also provide some quick relief, but Saunders says its best to start with dietary and lifestyle changes than to rely on over-the-counter medications.
If you find that those adjustments aren’t working for you, consider talking to your doctor. They’ll be able to rule out other conditions that also cause heartburn, such as asthma and certain heart conditions, or recommend you see a gastroenterologist.
They may also suggest over-the-counter or prescription proton-pump inhibitors, a type of medication that helps suppress acid production in your stomach.
“For a majority of patients, these medications are safe and effective,” Saunders says. “Once you reduce your stomach acid, you can heal and prevent complications from developing.”
When is acid reflux cause for concern?
If your acid reflux is severe or frequent, that could mean you have GERD, so don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor about it.
That’s because untreated GERD can cause more serious problems, such as inflammation (esophagitis) and bleeding, as well as the narrowing of your esophagus (strictures), which can make it difficult to swallow.
GERD may also lead to a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, when the cells lining your esophagus are damaged by frequent contact with your stomach acid.
“Barrett’s esophagus is associated with an increased risk of esophageal cancer,” Saunders notes. “It’s rare, but this is one of those more rapidly rising cancers in the country, probably related to more reflux and more obesity.”
Even if your acid reflux hasn’t led to a more serious health condition, taking a quick trip to the doctor and making a few healthy adjustments, can finally help you banish your heartburn for good.