Inside the steamy world of your burning heart.
During an evening on the town with friends, you eat a big, juicy hamburger and fries and stopped later at the bar for a drink. When you get home and climb in bed, it hits you: that sharp, burning sensation in your chest. At first you worry the pain is near your heart, but then you realize it’s just heartburn. Suddenly, you wish you’d just stayed home.
Sound familiar? Heartburn is a common complaint for many people. What causes the burning pain? Is food the culprit? Can you prevent heartburn from happening again? Get ready to find out.
Despite its name, heartburn is completely unrelated to the heart. While symptoms may be similar to those of a heart attack or other heart problem, heartburn is caused by stomach acid that seeps back into the esophagus when the lower esophageal sphincter (or LES: the muscle that allows food into the stomach and keeps acid out of the esophagus) doesn’t close tightly enough or is opened too frequently. This reflux of acid can cause a burning pain in the chest, often near the heart or upper abdomen, usually following a meal or occurring at night. Symptoms often worsen when you lie down or bend over.
Heartburn triggers differ from person to person but often include one or more of the following: overeating, obesity, pregnancy, lack of sleep, certain medications, smoking, stress, exercising at the wrong time of the day, and certain foods.
Heartburn’s Top Three
When it comes to food and heartburn, the three most common triggers include large meals, fatty foods, and a list of foods that cause the LES to relax, allowing acid to seep into the esophagus. Making a connection between what you ate and the heartburn that follows is the first step in putting out the flame.
If you’re prone to heartburn, you probably know you should avoid oversized meals right before bed. Eating so much that you feel stuffed and don’t want to move out of your chair is a recipe for heartburn. When your stomach is stretched to fit excess food, it places pressure on the LES muscle. As a result, you may be regretting that large meal when stomach acids start to cause burning pain.
Fatty foods are another culprit for heartburn. A big greasy hamburger and French fries is a recipe for reflux. Foods with a high fat or oil (animal or vegetable) content stay in your digestive tract for a longer period of time. Food that’s sitting in your stomach causes your stomach to produce greater amounts of acid. This acid is what causes the burning sensation. In addition, greasy, fried, and fatty foods have a relaxing effect on the LES. A relaxed LES doesn’t stay tightly closed, which makes it possible for extra acids to kick into reverse and head back up the esophagus.
In addition to fatty foods, a variety of foods and beverages can result in heartburn. These include the following:
- alcohol, especially red wine
- spicy foods, black pepper, raw onions, and garlic
- citrus fruits and juices (oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruits)
- tomatoes, tomato sauces, and ketchup
- caffeinated drinks (tea and soft drinks)
If you suffer from heartburn, the first step is to keep track of your diet and symptoms. Once you determine possible triggers, you’ll be better able to avoid them. Second, don’t overeat. Instead of stuffing yourself at mealtime, try eating five or six smaller meals a day. Third, forget that midnight snack before bed. Let your food digest at least two hours before lying down. If needed, elevate the head of your bed while you sleep. For occasional heartburn, take an over-the-counter antacid. Lastly, don’t smoke.
In the event lifestyle changes, over-the-counter medications, or diet changes don’t help; if your meals come back to haunt you more than twice a week; if you have difficulty swallowing; or if your stools are ever black, it’s time to seek medical intervention for your heartburn.
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