According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, “more than 50 million Americans have heartburn at least once a month and approximately 15 million have it every single day.”
For most people, heartburn is a relatively harmless discomfort that can be treated effectively with lifestyle changes and over–the–counter medication.
Common causes or “triggers” of heartburn include:
- Pregnancy: During pregnancy, the hormone progesterone can cause the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) to relax and allow stomach acid to back up into the esophagus, resulting in heartburn. Additionally, a pregnant woman’s enlarged uterus can crowd the abdomen and push stomach acids upward (this is especially common in the third trimester).
- Certain foods and beverages: There are certain foods and beverages that commonly trigger heartburn including tomato–based foods, citrus fruits and juices, chocolate, peppermint, fatty or fried foods, salt and salty foods, garlic, onions, spicy food, caffeinated beverages such as coffee and tea, carbonated beverages and alcohol.
- Large meals: When an individual eats a large meal, his or her stomach becomes stretched. This stretching causes the individual to feel “stuffed” and also puts pressure on the LES that may cause stomach acid to back up into the esophagus. Any large meal can cause heartburn, even meals that do not contain foods and beverages that are known to trigger symptoms.
- Pressure on the stomach: Heartburn can be triggered when an individual puts pressure on his or her stomach by lying down after a meal, wearing tight clothing, bending over frequently, exercising when full and/or being overweight or obese.
- Smoking: Smoking weakens the LES which can exacerbate heartburn.
- Certain medications: Some medications cause heartburn by relaxing the LES. Such medications include drugs that are used to treat asthma and/or allergies, high blood pressure and urinary tract infections, as well as muscle relaxants, pain killers and anti–depressants.
Once an individual’s triggers are known, the avoidance of heartburn is often a simple matter of lifestyle modifications:
- Avoid “trigger” foods and beverages
- Consume a healthy diet
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals
- Elevate the head of the bed
- Lie facing the left in bed
- Avoid eating before bed
- Stop smoking or never start
Most heartburn symptoms will dissipate with the modifications listed above. However, if your symptoms are persistent and become more severe and/or frequent, it is important that you consult a healthcare professional.