What is Heartburn?

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You've just enjoyed a big meal and are relaxing in front of the TV when it happens. A burning sensation begins to build in the upper abdomen, behind the breastbone, and makes your chest feel like it's on fire. The burning and chest pain may travel from your diaphragm all the way to your throat, and may be accompanied with a sour taste and the sensation of food re-entering your mouth.

You're suffering from severe heartburn.

Despite the name, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. It's a digestive problem that occurs when stomach acid comes into contact with the lining of the esophagus, causing irritation. Most people suffer from heartburn occasionally, usually after a meal. How do you know when your condition is considered chronic?

If you have heartburn once a month, it's considered mild. If you have heartburn once a week, it's moderate. It's when your heartburn occurs daily that it's considered to be severe.

About 20% of all adults will experience symptoms of heartburn at least once a month. They can manage these uncomfortable episodes with a change in diet, over-the-counter antacids and weight loss. Even those who suffer from moderate heartburn can often find relief with these remedies. But for five to fifteen percent of adults, their heartburn is severe. For them, the above-mentioned remedies give only partial or temporary relief.

What Causes Heartburn?

Heartburn is caused when stomach acid refluxes--backs up--into the esophagus. This can occur for a number of reasons:

  • Certain foods, such as chocolate, fried and fatty foods, peppermint, coffee, alcohol, sugars, can weaken or relax the LES.
  • Eating large meals or shortly before bedtime.
  • A hiatal hernia.
  • Pressure on the stomach, including frequent bending over, tight clothes, lifting, obesity.
  • Certain medications.
  • Smoking.
  • Stress can increase acid production and slow down the emptying of the stomach.

Is Heartburn Serious?

People who suffer from mild heartburn may consider it more of a nuisance than a condition that can cause any serious complications. But for those who suffer from chronic heartburn, episodes occurring from several times a week to several times a day, if it's left untreated can lead to severe complications.

For people who suffer from Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), heartburn can be chronic, and severe. This can cause scarring of the esophagus, which narrows the esophagus and makes it difficult to swallow. It can also lead to Barrett's esophagus, a condition where cells similar to those of the stomach lining develop in the lower esophagus. This severe damage to the esophagus increases your risk of developing cancer of the esophagus.

Managing Your Heartburn

You can find relief from your heartburn with a few self-care remedies.

This involves making a few lifestyle and diet changes.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Eat frequent smaller meals instead of three larger ones.
    This will help prevent excessive production of stomach acid.
  • Eat slowly.
    One way to help you slow down while eating is to put your fork or spoon down between bites.
  • Don't go to bed with a full stomach.
    Stay up at least three hours after eating your last meal or large snack before going to bed. This gives acid levels a chance to decrease before your body is in a position where heartburn is more likely to occur.
  • Raise the head of your bed several inches.
    With your head elevated, it will help prevent reflux during the night.
  • Avoid your heartburn triggers.
    Examples of foods and beverages that can trigger heartburn are coffee (including decaf), alcohol, fatty foods, caffeinated beverages and foods, onions, peppermint, chocolate, citrus fruits or juices, tomatoes. If you aren't sure what your heartburn triggers are, keep a food diary for a week or two.
  • Stop smoking.
    Nicotine can weaken the lower esophageal sphincter, the muscle that controls the opening between the esophagus and stomach and prevents the acid-containing contents of the stomach from entering the esophagus.
  • Wear looser-fitting clothes.
    Tight clothing squeezes the midsection and tends to push stomach contents upward.
  • Lose weight.
    If you are overweight, losing weight can help relieve your symptoms.
  • Chew gum.
    Chewing gum can provide short-term heartburn relief by stimulating the production of saliva, which dilutes and flushes out stomach acid.
  • Drink warm liquids.
    Drinking a glass of lukewarm water or herbal tea after a meal can dilute and flush out stomach acid.


"Heartburn, Gastroesophageal Reflux (GER), and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)." NIH Publication No. 07–0882 May 2007. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). 8 Aug 2007

"Is it just a little HEARTBURN or something more serious?." American College of Gastroenterology. 8 Aug 2007

"Heartburn and GERD FAQ." American College of Gastroenterology. 8 Aug 2007

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