Here’s why heartburn keeps coming back again and again (and again).
Even if you don’t have it yourself, you’ve probably heard of heartburn and what it feels like. It’s often described as burning and tightness, and the discomfort may be so intense that heartburn is often mistaken for a heart attack. Of course, for those who get heartburn regularly, the signs become all too recognizable.
What Causes Heartburn?
Heartburn, also called acid reflux, is when stomach acid leaks backwards into the esophagus. Stomach acid is intense; it has to be to break down foods that enter the stomach. While the stomach lining is designed to handle this acid, the esophagus is not—hence the burning pain.
Normally, this fierce acid is contained in the stomach by a valve-like muscle known as the lower esophageal sphincter. This valve sits between the esophagus and stomach, and its job is to allow food to pass into the stomach, and then close to keep stomach contents from coming back up.
But this sphincter doesn't always work as intended. Sometimes, the sphincter may be leaky due to pressure on the abdomen (such as during pregnancy), certain medications, or smoking. Many people also experience heartburn after eating certain heartburn trigger foods, such as tomatoes or fatty foods.
GERD: When Heartburn Becomes Chronic
When heartburn happens more than twice a week, that’s called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. This is a sign that the valve has become damaged or weak—and is not able to consistently do its job.
GERD causes symptoms like:
A burning sensation in the middle of the chest or throat
A sour taste in the mouth
Nausea and vomiting
And breathing problems.
When you have frequent heartburn, it’s important to seek treatment to manage your symptoms. Stomach acid is incredibly corrosive, and having it in your esophagus and throat on a regular basis can be very damaging. Here are serious complications of acid reflux to be aware of.
Preventing Heartburn and GERD
Lifestyle changes can help put out the fire of GERD. Experts suggest eating small, frequent meals to avoid putting excess stress on the stomach, losing weight (if needed), limiting high-fat foods, avoiding large meals late at night, and limiting GERD trigger foods.
When lifestyle changes don’t help, OTC and prescription medications are available to smother the flames of heartburn. Here are more treatment tips for heartburn.
If you’re feeling the burn on the regular, talk to a doctor about options to cool down GERD.
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Heartburn vs. heart attack. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Health Publishing, 2018. (Accessed on June 5, 2019 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/heartburn-vs-heart-attack.)
Symptoms & causes of GER & GERD. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 2014. (Accessed on June 5, 2019 at https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/acid-reflux-ger-gerd-adults/symptoms-causes.)