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What Causes Heartburn?

Updated on September 25, 2009

When I was a child, my mother had incredible bouts of heartburn which led to an equally incredible amount of belching. And I'm talking the obnoxious type of burping you'd expect from someone like Al Bundy. I made the mistake of taunting her for this, and would up developing the same exact problem when I was about 30. Lesson learned. Fortunately, today's medications are far superior to those my mother had access to way back when, and I don't have to go through all the pain, discomfort and, erm, noisy burpfests. But it's also important to recognize what actually causes your heartburn, as preventing it is surely better than have to deal with quelling it once it's begun.

What is heartburn?

Heartburn is not at all related to the heart itself, but takes its name from the generalized location of pain once the heartburn begins; it's in the same vicinity, but not caused by the heart. You get heartburn when acids that ought to be in your stomach start to make their way up your esophagus, and that is often the result of the esophageal sphincter not functioning properly -- it's supposed to keep a tight lid on that pathway, but if it gets loose for some reason, those vile stomach acids can leak (for lack of a better word) upward and wind up in your throat. Given that those acids are all kinds of nasty and meant for an environment which can tolerate them, it's no wonder that the soft tissues of your throat and other bits tend to react with extremely displeasure when those acids make contact.

What are the symptoms?

Some people confuse having gas with having heartburn. Others confuse it with chest pain. In my particular case, I've got a combination of reflux and heartburn and that feels a lot like having bile poured straight into the back of the throat -- which can lead to tearing eyes, coughing, and rather a surly disposition. It also includes occasions when it feels a bit like someone's driven their fist through the center of my chest and took a bit of my heart with them. These types of pain can often get worse if you lay down without taking some sort of medication for them first.

Things that can cause heartburn

Certain foods and drinks can cause heartburn in some people. This is not an exhaustive list, obviously, and if you think something else causes your own heartburn you may indeed be correct -- the easiest way to test it is to avoid it until you've got zero symptoms and then try a bit of it and see if the symptoms return.

  • Fried foods: This could be french fries, funnel cake, eggs, etc.

  • Orange juice: The acids in this can really get you!

  • Other acidic drinks: I have the same problem when I drink iced tea with too much lemon. Really!

  • Tomato sauce: I can't eat spaghetti without this happening!

  • Soda: Carbonated drinks can lead to heartburn.

  • Mustard: Especially the really spicy variety. Instant heartburn!

  • Coffee: This will depend on what type of coffee and what you're putting in it, but it can certainly lead to heartburn.

  • Pepper: And any other spices that would make you sneeze or cause your eyes to water up.

When heartburn becomes a problem:

Chronic heartburn and reflux can turn into GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) which can lead to other health problems so it's important to stay on top of your heartburn and not let it get out of hand if at all possible. If you're not able to treat it successfully with over the counter medications, you should see your doctor.

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