Heartburn is a burning sensation that is generally felt in the middle of your chest, right behind your breastbone. In most cases, the pain appears and/or becomes worse immediately after eating, during evening hours, or when lying down or bent over. In addition, the discomfort is accompanied by a bitter or acidic taste in the mouth.
Heartburn occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus. When you swallow, a band of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus (the esophageal sphincter) relaxes to allow food and liquid to reach your stomach, and then tightens again. If this muscle is weakened or does not function normally, stomach acid can move back up the esophagus and cause heartburn.
Experiencing occasional heartburn is common and should not be cause for alarm or a visit to a GI doctor. While it can be managed with antacids and other over-the-counter medications, a more long-term solution might be found in knowing what kinds of foods can cause heartburn and avoiding them.
The following are known to trigger heartburn in some people and should be avoided or eaten in moderation:
- Spicy foods
- Citrus fruits and drinks
- Tomato-based products, such as ketchup
- Dairy products
- Fatty or fried foods
- Carbonated drinks
- Coffee and other caffeinated drinks
- Large meals
Symptoms of a more serious condition
Understanding what foods trigger heartburn can help you make better eating choices. However, heartburn that happens frequently or interferes with your daily routine could signal a condition that may require medical attention. Frequent heartburn, regurgitation of food, vomiting, and difficulty/pain when swallowing, are all symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Reflux of stomach acid can also adversely affect the vocal cords, causing hoarseness, or cause pain when inhaled into the lungs.
The following signs indicate a more serious problem and you should visit a healthcare provider as soon as possible:
- Problems with swallowing (feeling that food gets “stuck”)
- Unexplained weight loss
- Frequent chest pain
- Unusual choking
- Bleeding (vomiting blood or having dark-colored stools)
In addition to these warning signs and symptoms, people who have had GERD symptoms for five years or longer should have an upper endoscopy to check for Barrett’s Esophagus, which is a precancerous change that occurs in the lining of the esophagus due to prolonged acid exposure.
In addition to avoiding trigger foods and drinks, you can also reduce the occurrence of heartburn by:
- Maintaining a healthy weight—extra weight puts more pressure on your abdomen, which pushes up your stomach and increases the chance for acid to move back up into the esophagus.
- Avoiding tight clothing—this also puts more pressure on your abdomen and stomach.
- Avoiding late meals—as mentioned before, lying down shortly after a meal can increase the likelihood of heartburn.
- Reducing/eliminating alcohol and smoking—both decrease the ability of your esophageal sphincter to function normally