Heartburn and indigestion are common and are not just linked to occasional over-indulgence. According to NHS Direct, about one in five people experience at least one instance of heartburn every week.
What does heartburn feel like?
Heartburn typically feels like a burning pain or discomfort in your chest, accompanied by a nasty acid taste in your throat.
“Food in the stomach is digested by strong acid, which can irritate and inflame the lining of the oesophagus or gullet if it washes back into it,” explains Dr Sarah Jarvis.
“Normally, that’s prevented by a strong band of muscle – called a sphincter –between the top of the stomach and the bottom of the gullet. But increased pressure on the stomach, the weakness of the sphincter and gravity all let acid back in where it shouldn’t be.”
Top heartburn food triggers
Some foods relax the sphincter muscle, making you more prone to heartburn, explains Sarah. Not all foods cause symptoms in everyone and sometimes it can be hard to identify your food triggers.
If you keep getting heartburn, you may want to try avoiding some of the common food triggers one at a time to see if your symptoms improve.
As a guide to help you, here are some of the top heartburn culprits:
- Spicy foods – chilli, curry or any other dishes containing hot spices may taste lovely but may bring on heartburn.
- Tomatoes – the acidic nature of tomatoes can trigger heartburn for some people.
- Garlic and onion – they may add flavour to meals but garlic and onion can be heartburn inducers.
- Citrus fruits – fruits such as oranges, grapefruit or lemon are zingy and flavoursome, but also highly acidic.
- Peppermint – often regarded as being good for the digestion, peppermint can also cause heartburn for some.
Other heartburn triggers
In addition to food and what you eat, other triggers can cause heartburn.
“Like some foods, alcohol and smoking may relax the sphincter muscle between the stomach and the gullet, allowing food to reflux back into the gullet more easily,” says Dr Jarvis.
“If you suffer from heartburn, you can use antacids or acid-reducing medicines to relieve the symptoms,” says Dr Jarvis. Speak to a pharmacist for advice on the many options available without prescription.
To reduce the risk of future attacks, she also suggests these self-help methods:
- Avoid eating large meals, to reduce fullness of the stomach pressing back on the sphincter.
- Bring suppertime forward, to reduce the chance of still having a full stomach when you lie down in bed.
- Try propping the head of the bed up on a couple of bricks, so gravity can help keep acid in your stomach where it belongs.
- Avoid wearing tight belts, skirts and trousers.
Should you see a doctor?
Heartburn can be really unpleasant and, if your symptoms are severe and it doesn’t ease after trying any of the self-help methods, then Dr Jarvis advises a trip to see your GP.
Heartburn and acid reflux are two of the main symptoms of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease – otherwise known as GORD. According to the NHS, another common symptom of GORD, which one in three people get, is difficulty in swallowing, which can occur if stomach acid scars the oesophagus and leads to narrowing. This causes a sensation a bit like having a piece of food stuck near your breastbone.
As with heartburn, self-help measures can help GORD, advises Sarah. If you smoke, it’s worth giving up to reduce further irritation to your digestive system and, if you’re overweight, losing weight can reduce the pressure on your stomach.
According to the Core Charity, an organisation concerned with digestive disorders, prescribed medications may be needed to help ease the symptoms of GORD and, in some severe cases, surgery may be required.
If your symptoms are severe or don’t respond to any self-help methods, you should definitely see your GP. Particular warning signs to watch out for include:
- Losing weight for no reason
- Being off your food
- Significant vomiting
- Passing bloody or black tarry stools
- Associated severe tiredness.
If you have any questions about heartburn and how to deal with it,you can send a question to our panel of experts.
NHS - www.nhs.uk
Core Charity (digestive diseases) - www.corecharity.org.uk
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