Heartburn or acid indigestion is one of the most common ailments in the United States. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 60 million American adults suffer from heartburn at least once a month, while 25 million adults experience heartburn every day.
Heartburn feels like a burning pain in the middle of your chest that may move up into your throat. Heartburn occurs when the lining of the esophagus is exposed to stomach acid (hydrochloric acid). Symptoms of heartburn include excessive burping, pain in the chest area, acid regurgitation, sour taste, and bad breath.
When heartburn is treated, it poses little risk to your overall health. It is more of an uncomfortable inconvenience than a medical problem. Left untreated, acid reflux disease is a complex condition, says James Maher, MD, UI Health Care gastrointestinal specialist. People experience degrees of severity ranging from only symptoms to erosive esophagitis that damages your esophagus.
The cause is a weakness of the sphincter muscle between the esophagus and stomach. Normally, this muscle is always contracted, preventing acid from refluxing into the esophagus. People with heartburn have either chronic weakness of that muscle or inappropriate relaxation of the muscle.
Food may trigger the discomfort but people may also wake with symptoms of reflux without taking any food at all. Trigger foods may include:
- Fried foods
- Foods high in fat
- Spicy foods
- Foods high in acid
- Coffee and tea
- Raw vegetables
- Carbonated beverages
- Chocolate (Sigh, it's true.)
- Eating late in the evening
- Hectic lifestyle
- Some medications--check with your physician
There is new hope for heartburn sufferers. Changes in lifestyle, medical advice, and proper medication can bring relief to millions of people.
Your lifestyle does make a difference. What you eat, when you eat, and how you live can affect the severity of heartburn symptoms. Some lifestyle changes you may want to talk to your doctor about could include:
- Losing weight/maintaining a healthy weight
- Using a common sense approach to eating
- Avoiding known trigger foods
- Avoiding bedtime snacks
- Elevating the head of your bed by six inches
- Stopping smoking
- Wearing loose-fitting clothes
Over-the-counter antacids, such as Tums or Rolaids, neutralize existing acid to provide short-term relief while H2 receptor blockers, such as Pepcid AC or Zantac 75, reduce acid production, allowing many sufferers to both relieve and possibly eliminate heartburn symptoms for a longer time. However, if you use these medications for longer than two weeks without any improvement, you should see your doctor, who may prescribe stronger medication.
How is GERD different?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter muscle does not close properly and stomach contents splash back, or reflux, into the esophagus. The lower esophageal sphincter muscle is a ring of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus that opens only when you swallow to allow food into the stomach. If this muscle weakens or relaxes at the wrong time, stomach acid backs up causing heartburn. GERD sufferers usually require prescription-strength medication.