Heartburn is a burning sensation felt in the chest, upper central abdomen, or just behind the breast bone.
It occurs when stomach acids flow back up into the esophagus, the tube that transports food from the mouth to the stomach. Normally when we swallow, muscles in the lower esophagus relax so that food and drink can be carried to the stomach, and then tighten up again afterwards like a valve. When these muscles relax outside of eating and drinking, stomach acid moves into the esophagus to cause a wicked case of heartburn. It is often worse when lying down.
Occasional bouts of heartburn – despite its discomforts – are completely normal. When heartburn occurs more than twice per week, it could be an indication of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) which irrigates the esophagus and, when left untreated, can lead to open sores and narrowing of the esophagus. If you have difficulty swallowing, are experiencing nausea, or vomiting, it’s time to see your doctor.
In the meantime, get some relief from the burn with these remedies:
1. Eat A Big Breakfast & A Small Dinner
Inverting the meal size status quo – that is, eating a large breakfast, a medium sized lunch, and a light dinner – can have a substantial impact on our digestive processes. Because insulin – the hormone responsible for processing sugars and storing glucose – is most active early in the day, eating a big breakfast provides a good boost to metabolic processes, like fasting glucose levels. Saving the largest meal for night time, on the other hand, leads to higher BMIs and waist circumference, according to a study published in 2013.
In addition to weight loss and healthier metabolic panel, eating breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper might help mitigate the frequency of heartburn. A study published in 1988 tracked the incidences of heartburn of 220 patients over a 24 hour period and found that the greatest amount of acid reflux occurred between the hours of 5 p.m. and midnight. Consuming a big dinner amps up stomach acid to aid digestion, and a huge meal can put pressure on the abdomen, leading to stomach acids backing up into the esophagus.
2. Lose The Spare Tire
Excess fat around the abdomen is a major risk factor for developing a hiatal hernia, a condition where the upper part of the stomach slips through the diaphragm and into the lower esophagus. While small hiatal hernias are usually symptom-free and don’t cause digestive issues, a large hiatal hernia can allow stomach acid and food to back up into the esophagus to cause heartburn.
3. Cut Out The Carbs
A very low carbohydrate diet may help improve the symptoms of heartburn, according to a small study published in 2006. Although the reason why cutting carbs works to alleviate acid reflux is unknown, consuming a diet of just 20 grams of carbohydrates or less per day showed significant changes in pH levels in the stomach. Using the Johnson-DeMeester scoring system, where heartburn is indicated at a score of above 14, the participants went from a median of 37.4 back to a normal range after eating a low carb diet after only six days.
4. Identify Your Heartburn Triggers
If your episodes of heartburn seem to strike at random times, keeping a journal can help narrow down your individual heartburn triggers. Keep a record of food and drink, the time of consumption, activities you engaged in before, during, and after, as well as the symptoms you experienced, for at least one week. Once you’ve identified your individual triggers, you don’t necessarily have to eliminate them from your life – just consume in moderation or swap them out for milder versions.
Here are some of the most common heartburn triggers:
Fatty Foods – Healthy fats like cheese, nuts, and avocado can be just as triggering as greasy foods like burgers and french fries. High fat foods have a tendency to relax the lower esophageal muscle, allowing acids to seep out of the stomach. Making matters worse, consuming fatty foods stimulates the release of cholecystokinin, a peptide hormone that delays digestion. While this has a beneficial effect of feeling sated for longer, it also prevents the stomach from emptying as quickly as it normally would, which can prolong exposure to stomach acids.
Acidic Food & Drink – It’s a no-brainer that foods high in acid, like oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and other citrus fruits can prompt painful acid reflux. Even tomatoes can trigger an episode. Be also mindful of fruit juices, especially when your stomach is already empty.
Spicy Foods – Hot and spicy foods are also well known heartburn triggers. The intense heat of habanero, jalapeno, cayenne, and poblano peppers is because of a compound called capsaicin. Although eating foods rich in capsaicin carries several health benefits, if you suffer from heartburn on the regular, you might want to find milder spices. Capsaicin has been shown to increase stomach acids and keep foods sitting in the stomach longer.
Caffeine – Drinks laden with caffeine like coffee, soda, and iced tea have been known to offend the esophagus on more than one occasion. Studies on caffeine intake have found that it can relax the muscles in the esophagus. Try these coffee alternatives that will still give you that caffeine hit without the painful heart burn.
Chocolate, too, can aggravate the esophagus since it not only contains caffeine, but also stimulates serotonin production, which can also contribute to acid reflux.
Mint – Although herbs in the mint family, like peppermint and spearmint, possess beneficial qualities for digestion, this same mechanism of action can work against heartburn sufferers.
While consuming peppermint can relax the smooth muscle of the gastrointestinal tract to ease gas, bloating, and pain, this calming effect also works on the esophageal muscle, which can contribute to heartburn. One study found that frequent drinkers of peppermint tea were twice as likely to experience heartburn.
According to a 1999 study, using low doses (0.5 mg) of spearmint for flavoring won’t increase your risk of heartburn but higher doses (500 mg) will.
Beer & Wine – While all kinds of alcohol can weaken esophagus, beverages with low ethanol content – like beer and wine – add fuel to the fire since they also significantly increase the production of acids in the stomach. If you like to imbibe and reduce the odds of experiencing heartburn, high ethanol drinks like whisky, gin, and cognac do not increase acid levels in the gut.
5. Manage Your Stress
The ancient biological reaction to threat that prompts a fight, flight, or freeze response, stress in modern times is more about dealing with the stresses of work, relationships, and major life upheavals than encountering a tiger in the jungle. And yet the emotional and physical response is the same as ever, impacting nearly every bodily function from head to toe.
The relationship between stress and heartburn has been well documented, with findings that acid reflux has a strong association with psychosocial stress – and the more stressed you are, the more severe the heartburn.
Learning coping techniques to manage stress in healthy ways will help improve your quality of life in addition to taming heartburn. There are also plenty of stress fighting foods and essential oils that can help keep the anxiety at bay.
6. Wear Loose Fitting Clothing
When you already suffer from heartburn, wearing skin tight clothing around the torso will only make it worse since it puts undue pressure on the abdomen. Until you have your acid reflux under control, put the skinny jeans aside for now and opt for a looser, stretchier, and comfier wardrobe.
7. Don’t Eat Less Than 3 Hours Before Bedtime
Eating a large meal and lying down is a sure fire way for heartburn to rear its ugly head. Dealing with a bad case of heartburn when you’re trying to sleep is uncomfortable to say the least, but if nightly heartburn episodes are a common occurrence, it can put your health at serious risk.
When lying horizontally, stomach acids are no longer thwarted by gravity and can creep up into the esophagus. Over time, the acids can scar and narrow the tube and may lead to the development a condition called Barrett’s esophagus which alters the mucosal cells. These cellular changes increase one’s risk of esophageal cancer.
8. Elevate The Head Of Your Bed
If sleepless nights caused by heartburn are a regular occurrence, you can get some relief with this simple fix: elevate the head of the bed.
In a small 2012 study, 24 patients who suffered from nocturnal acid reflux elevated the head of their beds with an 8-inch block for 6 nights. Elevating the head and torso had the effect of improving sleep disturbances in 65% of the participants.
Try it out by placing books, bricks, or blocks under the legs of the head of the bed to raise it by 8 to 11 inches – just make sure everything is secure and stable before slipping between the sheets. Another option is to invest in a wedge pillow.
9. Chew On Things That Produce Saliva
Since mouth saliva is naturally alkaline, eating and chewing on things that stimulate saliva production can help calm acid reflux in the moment.
Chewing gum, sucking on a sour ball, or snacking on crunchy veggies like raw carrots, celery sticks, and cucumber slices will jump start the salivary glands to lower pH levels in the digestive tract.
10. Eat More Heartburn Fighting Foods
High Fiber Foods – Eating a diet rich in fiber benefits the entire digestive system by moving food quickly through the stomach and into the intestines. Whole wheat grains, cereals, and pasta offer a good source of fiber, as do peas, lentils, beans, artichokes, broccoli, turnips, and raspberries.
Leafy Greens – Naturally low in fat and acidity, add more leafy greens like kale, spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, romaine lettuce, and micro greens to your meals.
Probiotics – Supplying the gut with good bacteria may help foster a better balance of stomach pH. Although more research is needed on the impact of probiotics on acid reflux, we do know that fermented foods keep the digestive system healthier and working as intended.
Ginger – Long used to treat digestive issues, ginger can help speed up the breakdown of food in the gut to hasten gastric emptying. This means less time for food to sit in the stomach and for acid levels to rise. Ginger also possesses natural anti-inflammatory and pain alleviating properties.
Turmeric – The wunderkind of root vegetables, turmeric is enriched with antioxidants which can help heal the gut. It is also an anti-inflammatory powerhouse that can ease stomach and esophageal irritations while providing pain relief and speeding up digestion.
Drink Water – Perhaps the simplest of fixes, drinking plenty of water throughout the day can help prevent and ease heartburn symptoms. Because most tap water consists of a neutral pH of 7, it can help make the contents of the stomach more alkaline.