Heartburn impacts many of us. Learn what you need to know about this common condition, and how to get rid of it—fast.
·October 19th, 2021
Heartburn, a burning sensation in the chest and sometimes throat, is the result of stomach acid backing up into the esophagus.
There are many causes of heartburn, including food and alcohol, pregnancy, weight gain, and even clothing.
Home remedies may be effective for treating heartburn, and over-the-counter and prescription medications can help as well.
Complementary therapies like diet consultations, hypnosis, and acupuncture may also help alleviate heartburn symptoms.
Are you feeling a burning sensation in your chest, just behind the breastbone? You may be experiencing the aptly-named heartburn. Don’t worry – nothing is actually burning, but it can certainly feel that way. Here’s what you need to know about this common condition, and how to get rid of it as quickly as possible.
What is heartburn?
The burning sensation one feels when experiencing heartburn is due to stomach acid backing up into the esophagus (the muscular tube that carries food and liquids from your mouth to the stomach).
The esophagus has a band of muscles at the end called an esophageal sphincter which prevents the stomach contents from entering the esophagus. Typically, stomach acid stays where it belongs but sometimes, it escapes—a condition known as “acid reflux.”
The stomach lining is not reactive to that acid, since it uses it to break down the food we eat. However, the esophagus is more sensitive to acid, hence the burning sensation in the chest. In some people, heartburn may also be accompanied by:
A sour or bitter taste in the mouth
A sore or hoarse throat
Regurgitation of foods or liquids
In a study of more than 71,000 American adults, nearly 45 percent report experiencing heartburn in the past, with more than one-third reporting heartburn on a weekly basis. Those who experience heartburn regularly may be diagnosed with a condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
Defined as frequent symptoms (two or more times a week) or when the esophagus suffers damage from reflux, GERD is a condition thought to affect up to 20% of the U.S. population, with an increased risk in people who are obese, elderly, and/or pregnant.
Is it heartburn or a heart attack?
Some cases of heartburn can be particularly intense, which may make people wonder if they are having a heart attack. Indeed, there may be some overlap in symptoms for severe heartburn and a heart attack. A heart attack, however, has some characteristics that are not present in heartburn.
Symptoms that overlap:
Shortness of breath
Symptoms of a heart attack may include:
Feeling weak, lightheaded, or faint
Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, or arm
If you are experiencing symptoms that worry you, it is always a good idea to err on the side of caution by dialing 911 immediately. It could save your life.
What causes heartburn?
There are many different causes of heartburn. Because of this wide variety, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for heartburn. Instead, it’s important to talk with a qualified medical professional about heartburn symptoms to ensure the underlying cause is correctly identified and effective treatment options are developed.
Some common causes of heartburn include, but are not limited to:
If you experience occasional symptoms of heartburn, consider what you have eaten that day. Large meals (overeating) may cause heartburn, as can certain ingredients. A registered dietitian or nutritionist can also help you identify the foods that may lead to heartburn. Common triggers for heartburn include:
Fried or fatty foods
Citrus (oranges, lemons, grapefruits)
A 2019 study found that people who drank more alcohol or drank alcohol more regularly had a greater likelihood of experiencing heartburn. Alcohol stimulates the stomach to make more acid. It also makes it easier for acid to rise up into the esophagus, because it relaxes the muscles in the esophagus.
Laying down after eating
Heartburn sometimes happen when laying down to watch TV or fall asleep within 2 hours of a meal. Gravity is one of the most effective protections against acid reflux, and laying on your back or side can make it much easier for acid to seep out of the stomach and into the esophagus.
Sometimes, the cause of heartburn is not what’s in your stomach, but on it. Tight-fitting clothing, such as tight pants, shapewear, or belts, can put pressure on the abdomen, forcing acid up into the esophagus.
Heartburn is a common complaint during pregnancy, occurring in as many as 45 percent of pregnancies. Although the exact reasons aren’t entirely clear, most experts believe that pregnancy hormones (like estrogen and progesterone) play a role, likely by causing a relaxation of the esophageal muscles that normally keep acid from traveling out of the stomach.
Studies have shown that weight gain and increased belly fat may either cause or worsen heartburn. The increased risk is thought to be due to the extra weight causing pressure on the stomach or an increase in estrogen exposure that occurs in individuals affected by obesity.
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, 8% of males and 15% of females over 65 years suffer from GERD. As we age, the muscles of the esophagus weaken, which makes it easier for acid to travel up and out of the stomach. Aging also decreases the force with which we swallow – an important element of clearing acid that has been (or potentially can be) refluxed into the esophagus.
How to get rid of heartburn fast
Identify and avoid the foods that trigger heartburn symptoms, such as spicy food, citrus, or coffee.
Wait at least 2-3 hours after eating before laying down to sleep.
Eat yogurt or drink milk, which may temporarily buffer stomach acid.
Dissolve a teaspoon of baking soda into a cup of water, then drink to neutralize the acid.
Chew gum, which stimulates the production of saliva and makes you swallow more often, pushing acid back down into the stomach.
Wear clothing that is loose on the abdomen.
There are a number of over-the-counter medicines available for treatment of occasional heartburn. They include:
Antacids: medicines that neutralize acid in the stomach
Alginates: medicines that block flow of fluids back into the stomach
H2 Blockers: medicines that block the signal to the brain that tells the body to make acid
Proton pump inhibitors: medicines that decrease the production of fluids in the stomach
Over-the-counter medicines can relieve most symptoms of heartburn. However, if they don’t alleviate symptoms, or if you are using the medications for longer than two weeks at a time, call your primary healthcare provider. You may need a stronger, prescription-only medication. You may also need to undergo tests to rule out other, more serious conditions, such as peptic ulcer disease.
Alternatively, complementary treatments like acupuncture and behavioral therapy for heartburn may alleviate your symptoms in conjunction with or in place of over the counter medication. Some trials have shown hypnotherapy to reduce heartburn and reflux symptoms.
Other forms of behavioral therapy may reduce stress, and in doing so may help to alleviate symptoms. Still more studies have identified acupuncture and electro-acupuncture as potentially effective treatments.
Addressing heartburn early on can not only bring you relief, but help you avoid long-term complications in the esophagus from chronic exposure to acid. Stopping the acid reflux early and effectively is key to enjoying better quality of life without feeling the burn.
If you think you may be experiencing heartburn, the right provider can help you build a personalized plan to support your wellbeing. Connect with a credentialed expert who serves your area here.