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What causes Heartburn?

Updated on April 7, 2012

Not since you left the old neighborhood have you tasted Italian food like this.

Antipasto replete with shimmering red peppers, spicy pepperoni, and black olives straight from the barrel. Thick hunks of bread and butter. Mounds of spaghetti and chunky, homemade sausage drowning in tomato sauce. And for dessert, a chocolate liqueur-laced cannoli. Mmmm, hits the spot! But moments later, the spot getting hit is hitting back-smack-dab in the middle of your chest. You have yourself a good oldfashioned case of heartburn.

Heartburn is one of the most common problems seen by gastroenterologists.

Actually, if it weren't for a muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), located at the point where your esophagus and stomach connect, you would probably have heartburn after every meal. This one-way valve opens, dropping food down into your stomach, and then closes, keeping digestive stomach acid from coming up. Sometimes, however, the valve opens at the wrong time or doesn't close completely, allowing acid from your stomach to squirt into your esophagus. The pain you feel is your tender tissues' way of yelling "ouch!" as they recoil from their acid shower.

Eating at regular times slowly and in a relaxed atmosphere can help assure that the LES does its job efficiently. And smaller meals, which leave your stomach more quickly and produce less acid than large meals, are a help.

What you eat can also make a difference.

A diet high in fat encourages the secretion of heartburn-causing hormones. These hormones increase acid production, delay stomach emptying, and get right in there and flip your esophageal sphincter open. After-dinner chocolates, peppermints, and alcohol can have the same effect, as can smoking.

Coffee, tea, and citrus and tomato juices have all been linked to heartburn. Water, on the other hand, can cool things down.

If you're overweight, keep track of how much you eat, too. Shedding excess weight seems to take a load off your digestive system and reduces heartburn as well.

Trying to sleep with a case of heartburn is an invitation to insomnia. A "backwash" of stomach acids is more likely to occur when you're lying down with a full stomach, so try not to eat for at least a couple of hours before going to bed. If you do go to bed right after eating, try raising the head of your bed 6 inches or so (use blocks of wood under the bedposts). Tilting your bed helps gravity keep acid down in your stomach.

Antacids are effective in neutralizing stomach acid. Liquid antacids, which do a better job of spreading themselves across the surface of your esophagus, are preferable. They can interfere with your body's absorption of other medications, such as aspirin or the antibiotic tetracycline.

If heartburn persists, see a physician, as your symptoms may signal a more serious problem.


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    • Mr Knowitall profile image

      Mr Knowitall 5 years ago

      Kelley, have you read the book Wheat Belly? Very interesting read.

    • profile image

      kelleyward 5 years ago

      Interesting information you contained here. Another important cause of heartburn could be related to gluten-intolerance, which is on the rise in America. Thanks for sharing this information.