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Heartburn/GERD Health Center

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The Basics of Heartburn and GERD

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.  

Recommended Related to Heartburn/GERD

Heartburn 101

There was a time when it didn’t take much to set off Sara Perlman-Smith’s heartburn. Spicy foods, alcohol, even a foul mood could send a burning wave rushing up her throat. "I could feel the acid in my esophagus," she recalls. "It was just a consistent burning pain in my chest." Then there was the constant burping. "A lot of times that would make me feel a little better," says Perlman-Smith, 38, a stay-at-home mom in Hallsville, Mo. "But a lot of the time if it was a really bad episode, I’d just...

Read the Heartburn 101 article > >

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
  • Hoarseness
  • 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
  • Trouble swallowing
  • 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
  • Are overweight
  • Smoke
  • Wear tight-fitting clothing or belts
  • Lie down or bend over after eating 
  • Are stressed out
  • Are pregnant
  • 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
  • Are constipated


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.
  • Avoid constipation.
  • If you smoke, stop. Smoking relaxes the valve that allows reflux.
  • Wear loose belts and clothing.


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