Heartburn is a condition characterized by a burning sensation in the chest, and despite its name, it does not involve or effect the heart. Heartburn, also known as acid reflux, happens when stomach acid flows into your esophagus (the tube connecting your mouth to your stomach). This can leads to a burning discomfort in your upper stomach. Heartburn is a common condition which occurs about once a week for up to 20% of Americans.
What are ways to prevent heartburn?
To relieve some of the symptoms of heartburn, you may want to try the following tips:
Identify and avoid certain foods that act as triggers
Certain foods and drinks may trigger heartburn more often because they are high in acidity or contain carbonation which prompts reflux. Common foods you may want to avoid include: tomatoes, garlic, milk, coffee, chocolate, peppermint, fatty foods, etc. Keeping a log of your food intake can help identify which foods act as triggers so you can avoid them in the future.
Eating at least 2–3 hours before going to bed can help avoid heartburn. This gives the body time to fully digest your food and leave your stomach before lying down, a position that can often worsen reflux.
Eat smaller portions more frequently
Eating large portions can put pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter and cause the muscle to weaken overtime. Additionally the more you eat, the longer it takes your body to digest, which can worsen reflux. Instead, avoid this risk by eating smaller portions more frequently, instead of a few large meals.
The nicotine found in cigarettes can weaken your lower esophageal sphincter allowing stomach acid to seep out into the esophagus. By stopping smoking you avoid this relaxation of the muscle, and thus lower your risk of heartburn.
Reduce or avoid alcohol use
Alcohol can also weaken your lower esophageal sphincter as it can contain carbonation and acidity. It also can lead to erosion in your esophagus and worsen reflux causing heartburn.
While this condition isn’t typically dangerous, you should consult a doctor if it occurs frequently or consistently interferes with your life. This is because long-term heartburn, known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), erodes the esophagus and can lead to issues such as a long-term cough, laryngitis, ulcers and inflammation in the esophagus. Excessive alcohol use can also cause high blood pressure, diabetes or lead to stroke.
You should also see a doctor right away if you:
- Have trouble swallowing, or feel your food gets “stuck”;
- Lose weight with weeks of heartburn;
- Choke when you eat
- Vomit blood or have bowel movements that are bloody or look black like tar.
Learn more about relieving heartburn by discussing with your doctor or medical provider.
About the author
Prentiss Taylor M.D. is the Vice President of Medical Affairs at Doctor On Demand. He is board-certified in Preventive Medicine as well as in Internal Medicine. Prentiss is an honors graduate of Harvard University and of Harvard Medical School. He trained at the University of Chicago Hospitals and at Rush University Medical Center for his postgraduate years. After working for Advocate in the 1990s, Prentiss was recruited to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, where he worked for over 6 years. He was promoted to Medical Director for Care Management, responsible for 1.2 million people in the Blue Cross PPO programs.