Heartburn is the burning feeling created when acid escapes your stomach and travels up your oesophagus. Many people experience heartburn at some point in their life. It can be due to a variety of causes, which vary from person to person.
Here’s how the process occurs:
- Mouth- Digestion starts here. As you chew, the saliva in your mouth starts to break the food down ready for digestion.
- Oesophagus- Food travels down this pipe and is prepared to enter the stomach, where it will be digested further.
- Lower Oesophageal Sphincter- This valve is the gateway between your stomach and your oesophagus. This naturaly stays closed, and normally only opens when you swallow or belch. If it relaxes, it can allow some acid to sneak through from your stomach to your oesophagus, so you’ll start to experience heartburn.
- Stomach- The stomach is made to house plenty of acid and enzymes, perfect for breaking down and metabolizing your meals.
Symptoms of Heartburn
The most common symptom of heartburn is the burning sensation in the middle of your chest. Other symptoms include:
- A sour taste at the back of the throat/mouth
- Bad breath
- Recurring cough or hiccups
Causes of Heartburn
When it comes to heartburn, everyone has different triggers – though there are some very common offenders that seem to affect many people.
Due to everyone being different, it is best to identify your own personal causes to help you manage heartburn better. Try keeping a ‘heartburn diary’ to pinpoint your triggers – that way you can make smarter decisions regarding your food in the future.
This page will consider Food, Caffeine, Alcohol, Sleep, Smoking, Weight.
Food is one of the biggest causes of heartburn. It all comes down to how your body reacts to the food. Some foods may trigger your stomach to produce more acid or relax the lower oesophageal sphincter, which can mean the acid finds its way into the oesophageal tract– this then causes the burning sensation of heartburn.
Common triggers include:
- Chocolate – chocolate can relax the lower oesophageal sphincter.
- Raw onion – onions are a prime source of fermentable fibre, which may trigger belching
- Fried / fatty food
- Citrus fruit (including orange juice)
- Spicy food – spicy foods can contain compounds which slow the rate of digestion, meaning the food will sit in the stomach for longer. This is a risk factor for heartburn
- Tomatoes and tomato sauces
Coffee is a common drink you may consume throughout the day; but caffeine is a common heartburn trigger which can be found in more than just coffee:
- Energy Drinks
- Fizzy drinks
Alcohol can be a trigger of indigestion – all beverages containing alcohol can trigger heartburn on consumption. This is because alcohol can relax the lower oesophageal sphincter, enabling acid to travel up.
Additionally, alcoholic beverages, especially wine and beer, can increase your amount of stomach acid, which can increase the risk of heartburn.
Lying in a horizontal position can make it easier for acid to creep through to the oesophagus, especially if your stomach is still digesting food. Avoid eating before you go to bed.
Smoking relaxes the oesophageal sphincter that keeps acid out of the stomach. Many smokers find they suffer from some form of heartburn or indigestion.
Studies have found a correlation between increasing weight and risk of heartburn. It is thought that the extra fat around the belly increases the pressure on the stomach, pushing fluid up into the oesophagus.
If you are carrying an extra few pounds, then exercise may help your heartburn by reducing your weight. But try not to exercise on a full stomach.
However, some exercises may increase your chances of heartburn too. Typically, this may happen following exercises such as running, weightlifting, and rowing when performed at a high intensity.
There are lots of ways you can help keep heartburn to a minimum. It might look like a long list, but you don’t need to do all of them at once! Try a few of these tips and see if they make a difference.
Maintain a healthy weight: If you’re a few pounds overweight, the extra pressure placed on your stomach can force acid up into your oesophagus. Losing just a few pounds could help ease your symptoms. Here are some key changes you can stick to over the long-term to help with losing weight:
- Opt for water instead of sugary drinks and citrus-based fruit juices.
- Choose low-fat foods wherever possible.
- Eat smaller portions of each meal.
- Try to be more physically active – take up a sport, go for a walk or join a gym.
Exercise has a multitude of positive effects on the body; not only can it help relieve heartburn through weight loss, it can also help reduce stress and improve your digestion and cardiovascular health.
If you’re thinking of starting a new exercise program, talk with your doctor or pharmacist first.
Quit smoking: We know it’s easier said than done but stopping smoking can help your heartburn (as well as offering a multitude of other health benefits). Smoking can cause the oesophageal sphincter to relax, which lets out acid from the stomach and directly causes heartburn.
Sleeping position: To help prevent acid travelling up, raise the end of your bed by about 15 cm by putting something under your bed or mattress so your chest and head are above the level of your waist.
Even the smallest positive changes to your diet can have a big effect on your heartburn.
For those looking for realistic dietary changes they can make in their everyday life, we’ve got some top tips:
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals - eating big meals can increase the amount of stomach acid you produce.
- Eat slowly – not rushing gives your body time to properly begin digestion, and it also means there’s time for your brain to put out the message that it’s full.
Trigger swaps: Once you’ve identified the triggers of your heartburn, you can work to replace them in your diet with other foods and drinks that will keep the burn at bay. Here are a few suggestions:
Fizzy drinks or cola
High-fat dairy products
Veggie- or broth-based sauces
Plant-based products e.g., oat or coconut milk
Things to consider when eating out
Eating out at restaurants, cafes and fast-food places is a regular occurrence for many people – here are some tips to battle heartburn when you’re not at home.
Fatty, greasy foods are a prime trigger for heartburn, so try to avoid them on restaurant menus. Although the types of food which trigger heartburn can be different for everyone, the following tips may help you:
Avoid high hat foods such as chicken wings saturated with greasy sauces or marinades.
- Skip any soup that starts with ‘Cream of…’ if dairy is a trigger for you– try a broth-based soup.
- Avoid fried food! Try grilled instead.
- Ask for all dressings and sauces on the side of your dish, so you can control your portions
- Cut down on tea, coffee, fizzy drinks
- Minimise alcohol consumption
- Prop the head of your bed to avoid lying horizontally
- Regular exercise
- Take care when eating out in restaurants
- Eat less than 3 hours before going to bed
- Exercise on a full stomach
- Eat excessive spicy foods
- Wear tight clothing
- Eat excessively large portions
If you have prolonged or severe symptoms, you are concerned about your symptoms or do not feel they are improving, consult a doctor for advice. The information presented here is not intended to diagnose or prescribe.