When heartburn strikes, try a natural remedy. Simple lifestyle changes, such as learning which foods to eat and which to avoid, can help ease the pain.
Most of us have experienced the pain and discomfort of heartburn on at least a few occasions. That warm, burning sensation in the chest, just behind the breastbone, typically comes in waves. It can be the outcome of overindulgence, or in some cases, a deeper underlying problem.
What is heartburn?
Whether an occasional experience or a regular occurrence, understanding what causes heartburn can be the key to overcoming this uncomfortable digestive concern. The word heartburn is a common term that, in fact, has nothing to do with the heart. The result of stomach acid backing up into the oesophagus, heartburn denotes the characteristic pain and burning felt in the chest area. It can be brought on by pregnancy, obesity, certain foods, alcohol and some medications.
What is acid reflux?
Also called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), acid reflux involves stomach acid flowing back into the oesophagus. Heartburn is one of the most common symptoms of acid reflux. While heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux, some individuals may not experience a burning sensation at all. Instead they may report a dry cough, asthma symptoms or having trouble swallowing.
What causes acid reflux?
Normally, when food or liquid enters the stomach, a band of muscle called the lower oesophageal sphincter, located at the end of the oesophagus, closes. If this band does not close tightly enough, contents from the stomach can back up (reflux) into the oesophagus. Partly digested material as well as acid can irritate the oesophagus, causing heartburn and other symptoms.
During pregnancy, acid reflux can be very common. As the foetus grows, increasing pressure in the abdomen can cause stomach contents to back up into the oesophagus, giving rise to heartburn, indigestion and overall discomfort.
A hiatal hernia, which is the protrusion of the stomach upwards through the diaphragm, can also be an underlying cause of acid reflux. Often painful, hiatal hernia can present with a wide range of digestive concerns such as heartburn, as well as nonspecific symptoms such as shortness of breath and dull chest pain.
Dietary and lifestyle choices to prevent heartburn
When most of us think of heartburn, we may picture a night of indulgence. However, occasional and frequent heartburn can be caused by a number of dietary and lifestyle factors which, when modified, can prevent a painful episode.
Foods to avoid
While trigger foods can vary with the individual, certain foods are known to exacerbate acid reflux. Tomatoes, tomato sauces, peppermint, spearmint and even chocolate have been shown to cause heartburn.
A study conducted in Singapore looked at the consumption of curry, a combination of spices used commonly in Asian cooking. Researchers found that consuming curry exacerbated GERD and therefore should be avoided by those diagnosed with GERD.
Foods to eat
Known as a bland diet, certain foods are recommended for those prone to suffering from chronic heartburn. Characterised by mostly low-fat foods, a bland diet consists of foods that can effectively soothe the burn of acid reflux. Foods that are suggested include low-fat dairy products, lean meats, eggs, porridge, tofu and tea.
What to drink
Often overlooked, what you drink can have a serious impact on heartburn. An interesting clinical article published in Seoul, Korea, showed a direct link between acidic beverages and heartburn. While coffee was linked to a high incidence of heartburn, oolong tea, a type of green tea, was shown to have less likelihood of precipitating an attack.
Regular milk was shown to cause more heartburn than low-fat milk, while carrot juice was shown to be less irritating than citrus juices.
When to eat
Overall, eating smaller meals throughout the day can decrease the likelihood of acid spewing out of the stomach into the oesophagus, causing the characteristic burning sensation.
Sleep position can play a role in heartburn relief. Sleeping with the head raised 15 cm higher than the stomach can prevent digested food from backing up in the oesophagus. An interesting aspect of reflux disease is known as nighttime heartburn or nocturnal gastroesophageal disease.
In some individuals, heartburn experienced during sleep can be the cause of disrupted sleep as well as frequent waking. Eating the last meal of the day well before sleep time can greatly reduce this lesser known aspect of the disease.
Tight-fitting belts or clothes that fit snugly around the waist, squeezing the stomach, may force food to reflux. Wearing loose clothing, especially when the threat of reflux is greater, such as during pregnancy, can greatly prevent attacks.
More lifestyle changes
Exercising and weight loss
Avoid the act of bending or exercising just after eating to help prevent acid reflux. As well, an overall reduction in body weight can reduce the pressure on stomach contents. Studies have shown that a reduction in stress can also help prevent acid reflux.
Since chemicals in cigarette smoke can irritate the lower oesophageal sphincter, smoking cessation can greatly improve incidences of heartburn.
An interesting study looked at the effect of chewing sugar-free gum on acid reflux. Chewing sugar-free gum for half an hour after a meal was shown to significantly reduce acidic postprandial oesophageal reflux.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
While occasional heartburn is not a grave concern, in situations where acid reflux occurs frequently, the obvious concern is damage to the lining of the oesophagus. Heartburn that occurs more than twice a week is defined as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and requires closer investigation and treatment.
Different aspects of lifestyle and diet come together in the prevention of heartburn. From wearing loose clothing to avoiding fatty foods to chewing gum, heartburn can be successfully addressed using a wide range of tactics. Hence, following healthy digestive tips and a bland diet may help you escape the wrath of heartburn and also improve overall optimal digestion and health.
Heartburn or heart attack?
Learn how to tell the difference between heartburn and a heart attack.
Common heart attack symptoms
- squeezing and pressure in the chest
- pain spreading to the shoulders, neck or arms
- light-headedness, weakness or dizziness—even cold sweats
- shortness of breath, along with nausea and possible vomiting
When in doubt, always consult a health care practitioner or seek emergency medical services.
Common heartburn symptoms
These characteristics of heartburn will help you distinguish between the two.
- Pain generally does not usually radiate to the shoulders, neck or arms (although it may).
- Pain usually comes after meals.
- Symptoms usually respond quickly to antacids.
Natural heartburn remedies
These remedies can help reduce the pain of heartburn.
- barberry: in tea form, or 30 to 60 drops as a tincture up to three times per day
- chamomile: as a tea three to four times per day
- bifidobacteria: 17 billion colony forming units (CFU) daily
Quick tips for healthy digestion
- Avoid high-fat meals and fried foods.
- Skip coffee—it’s a known digestive irritant.
- Avoid excessive irritants such as alcohol, caffeine, citrus juices and carbonated beverages.
- Don’t eat for three to four hours before bedtime.
- Stop smoking.