Despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. It happens when your esophagus, the tube that goes from your throat to your stomach gets irritated by acid that comes up from your stomach. That happens if a valve at the top of the stomach doesn’t work properly.
Most people have felt heartburn at one time or another. It's uncomfortable, but it’s usually not a serious health problem.
No matter what you eat, you worry that chronic heartburn will always be there. You've tried all the antacids, followed a bland diet, given up on certain foods completely. But still you wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes with pain deep in your throat, other times with a sore throat and trouble breathing, as if you were having an asthma attack. You try to sleep sitting up in a chair, and realize with dismay: This has been going on for years.
If it happens often, you may have a more serious condition called GERD. That stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease. Left untreated, GERD can sometimes lead to other problems, including:
Inflammation and ulcers in the esophagus
Chronic pulmonary disease
Barrett's esophagus -- a change in the lining of the esophagus that makes you more likely to get esophageal cancer
What Are Heartburn Symptoms?
You may have:
A burning feeling in your chest just behind the breastbone that happens after you eat and lasts a few minutes to several hours
Chest pain, especially after bending over, lying down, or eating
Burning in the throat -- or a hot, sour, acidic, or salty-tasting fluid at the back of the throat
Feeling of food "sticking" in the middle of your chest or throat
What Causes Heartburn?
You are more likely to get heartburn if you:
Eat large portions
Have certain foods, including onions, chocolate, peppermint, high-fat or spicy foods, citrus fruits, garlic, and tomatoes or tomato-based products
Drink citrus juices, alcohol, caffeinated drinks, and carbonated beverages
Eat before bedtime
Wear tight-fitting clothing or belts
Lie down or bend over after eating
Are stressed out
Have a hiatal hernia, meaning that part of your stomach bulges up into your chest
Take certain medications, especially some antibiotics and NSAIDS, including aspirin
What Can I Do About Heartburn?
Try these tips to help relieve, lessen, or prevent heartburn:
Raise the head of your bed about 6 inches. This helps gravity keep your stomach's contents in your stomach. Do not use piles of pillows. Doing so puts your body into a bent position that actually makes the condition worse because it increases pressure on your abdomen. Instead, put books or bricks under the legs of the bed to raise it up.
Eat meals at least three to four hours before lying down, and avoid bedtime snacks.
Eat smaller meals.
Maintain a healthy weight.
Limit fatty foods, chocolate, peppermint, coffee, tea, colas, and alcohol. All of these can relax the valve at the top of the esophagus.
Limit tomatoes and citrus fruits or juices. These contain acid that can irritate the esophagus.
Ask your doctor if you need to try an “elimination diet” to find other foods that bother you. On an elimination diet, you stop eating certain foods to find out which ones cause a problem.
If you smoke, stop. Smoking relaxes the valve that allows reflux.