Nothing spoils a good meal quite like the gnawing pain of heartburn. The source of the pain is stomach acid flowing upward into the esophagus, the tube that transports swallowed food to your stomach. With no natural protection against the corrosive action of stomach acid, your esophagus becomes inflamed when stomach contents wash back into this structure. Although many people take antacids to quiet the pain of heartburn, other measures may also relieve your discomfort.
Food and digestive acid normally stay within the stomach thanks to a muscular ring at the lower end of your esophagus. This ring, or sphincter, relaxes to let food in and tightens to prevent esophageal back flow. During a bout of heartburn, your lower esophageal sphincter fails and stomach contents escape upward into your esophagus. Removing tight clothing may lower the pressure in your stomach and abdomen sufficiently to prevent or reduce acid reflux into your esophagus. Lose the belt, tight pants or snug skirt and put on something that fits loosely around your middle.
Gravity can be your friend or enemy during a bout of heartburn, depending on your body position. When your lower esophageal sphincter is open, stomach contents easily flow into your esophagus if you lie down. When you are upright, however, gravity works against back flow. Avoid bending over when you have heartburn because this position both compresses your abdomen and gravitationally promotes backwash. Ideally, you should remain upright for at least three hours after a meal if you are experiencing heartburn. During this time, your stomach contents slowly empty into your small intestine. If you are sleepy, a reclining chair that keeps your body at an upright angle is your best bet.
In a February 2001 article published in the journal "Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics," Dr. Benjamin Avidan and colleagues report that walking after a meal significantly reduces esophageal exposure to stomach acid among people with reflux. So put on some comfortable clothes and take a stroll; the exercise is good for your body and may help alleviate your heartburn.
Chewing gum induces saliva production in your mouth. Swallowing saliva while chewing gum helps neutralize and clear stomach acid from your esophagus, potentially relieving your heartburn symptoms. In a November 2005 article published in the "Journal of Dental Research," Dr. Rebecca Moazzez and fellow researchers reported that chewing sugar-free gum for 30 minutes after a fatty meal significantly reduced esophageal acid exposure among people with symptomatic reflux.
Smoking may induce looseness of your lower esophageal sphincter, promoting acid reflux. Refraining from smoking may help shorten an episode of heartburn — and may get you thinking about a long-term smoking-cessation plan. Your esophagus, heart and lungs will reward you for such a wise decision.
Take an Eating Break
The pressure inside your stomach builds with progressive filling, increasing the likelihood of acid reflux into your esophagus. If you have heartburn, take a break from eating and drinking for three or four hours until your stomach empties. Avoid coffee, alcohol, milk, orange juice, tomato juice, cow's milk, caffeinated tea, peppermints, chocolate and carbonated soft drinks because these foods can aggravate heartburn.
Frequent heartburn may indicate an underlying medical problem, such as a hiatal hernia, stomach inflammation, an ulcer or an esophageal infection. Additionally, ongoing acid reflux may damage the cells that line your esophagus, potentially increasing your risk of esophageal cancer. If you have frequent heartburn, see your doctor to determine the cause and appropriate treatment.
Is This an Emergency?
- FamilyDoctor.org; Heartburn; July 2010
- "Journal of Dental Research"; The Effect of Chewing Sugar-Free Gum on Gastroesophageal Reflux; Rebecca Moazzez, B.D.S., M.Sc., Ph.D. et al; November 2005
- "Gastroenterology"; American Gastroenterological Association Medical Position Statement on the Management of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease; Peter J. Kahrilas, M.D. et al; October 2008