Expert Tips to Help Beat the Burn
Your chest burns like a ring of fire and the flames keep getting higher. Ring a bell? More than 25 million adults experience heartburn on a daily basis, and more than one-third of adults in the United States feel the burn at least once a month, according to a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
“Heartburn is a sensation of burning or pressure in the chest that occurs when stomach contents and acid back up into the swallowing tube [esophagus] from the mouth to the stomach,” explains Victor S. Sierpina, MD, author of The Healthy Gut Workbook, which offers a helpful integrative approach to easing digestive distress. The pain, which typically arises after meals, can flare in the evening.
“Heartburn is not related to the heart but is so called as symptoms are near the heart and can be mistaken for serious heart problems like a heart attack,” adds Sierpina.
An occasional bout of heartburn may often be managed with preventive diet solutions, weight management, positive lifestyle changes, natural remedies or over-the-counter antacids. But if you experience heartburn frequently, see your physician because the symptoms could indicate gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD), which may lead to serious problems over time.
California-based dietitian Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, PhD, RD, an expert in gastrointestinal nutrition and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, offers these suggestions to help you prevent the burn:
- SQUELCH ACIDS. When added to the acidic content of the stomach, acidic foods such as citrus and tomatoes can trigger heartburn because the combination results in more reflux to irritate the esophagus.
- MONITOR FAT. “Foods rich in fat take the longest to leave the stomach,” so there’s more time for reflux to occur while you digest the foods. Heartburn triggers include whole-fat dairy products, high-fat meats, fried foods, and fatty desserts.
- HOT HEADS BEWARE. “Spicy foods and onions will often trigger heartburn in some people for no particular reason other than that they just irritate an existing condition.”
- CUT THESE CULPRITS. Since alcohol and caffeine ignite the burn, cut back or eliminate them. “They cause heartburn because they lower the pressure of the esophageal sphincter, allowing stomach acid to reach the esophagus,” adds Gazzaniga-Moloo.
- WHITTLE YOUR WAISTLINE. Excess weight, especially around the middle, can exacerbate heartburn. “Losing weight may help lessen symptoms,” says Gazzaniga-Moloo.
- PORTION PATROL. “Eat small, frequent meals low in fat,” she notes, also recommending that you drink fluids at least 30 minutes before or after a meal and limit what you drink while eating. If you notice that a particular food bothers you, “Either cut it out altogether or try eating smaller portions.”
Sierpina, whose professional practice focuses on natural health approaches to disease prevention, offers more heartburn help:
- TURN DOWN TRIGGERS. Avoid other foods, fluids, and substances that cause relaxation of the esophageal sphincter such as spicy items, tobacco, and peppermint.
- KEEP YOUR HEAD UP. “Don’t lie down for at least two hours after eating, since the recumbent posture provides a lower resistance to gut contents backing up into the esophagus.” Sierpina suggests elevating the head of the bed by 6 inches to reduce the occurrence of heartburn when you recline or sleep.
- TRY A NATURAL RX. Gut-friendly licorice in the form of DGL (deglycyrrhizinated licorice) may offer soothing support because “DGL is a demulcent and coats the stomach and esophagus,” explains Sierpina, who recommends taking two DGL tablets before meals. Aloe vera juice, rice bran oil, and slippery elm, he says, may all be useful in acute or chronic heartburn.
- SALIVATE. Chew gum between meals. “Chewing gum activates saliva, which is alkaline,” explains Sierpina. “It also stimulates esophageal and stomach peristalsis in some of the same ways eating does.”
- HAVE A BANANA. Bananas are alkaline, high in potassium, and their texture and consistency soothe inflamed mucous membranes.
- CHANGE YOUR HABITS. Managing stress, being mindful of food choices, chewing well and slowly when eating, and drinking eight to 10 glasses of water each day are also helpful, says Sierpina.
“See your doctor if such measures and over-the-counter antacids such as Tums, ranitidine, famotidine, or omeprazole do not control symptoms,” advises Sierpina. He warns that if symptoms are increasing—you have progressive pain, trouble swallowing, or you’re losing weight—these are all indications it’s time to visit your doctor.