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Feel The Burn: The Lowdown on Heartburn

Pizza, wings and beer can be a heavenly combination. When enjoyed during a big sports game, these mouth-watering morsels will bring you nothing but wave after wave of intense pleasure – until, of course, the heartburn sets in. If you don’t want to feel the burn — and believe us, you don’t — you’ll want to get the lowdown on heartburn, which we’ve got for you.

What is Heartburn?

Don't let the name fool you, but heartburn really has nothing to do with the heart. It’s actually a digestive problem caused by the regurgitation of stomach acid up through the opening of the stomach and into the esophagus. It’s the irritation of your esophagus by stomach acid that causes those familiar feelings of upper abdominal pain that are often accompanied with a burning chest sensation and bitter taste in the mouth.

Who’s at Risk for Heartburn?

If you smoke, are pregnant (guys, I think you’re safe here), are overweight, like to grab a late snack, do lots of bending at work, have a hiatal hernia, or peptic ulcer, then you’re more likely to succumb to heartburn.

Those factors aside, much to do with what causes heartburn are the foods that you eat. Common foods that trigger heartburn include alcohol, coffee, citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, chocolate, fried foods, fatty foods, vinegar, and even pepper.

But it’s not just the foods or unhealthy habits that factor into causing heartburn; it all boils down to your esophageal sphincter, the muscle that acts as a gateway between the esophagus and stomach. When this muscle is weak or functioning improperly, heartburn can strike. And with over 15 million Americans experiencing heartburn daily, it’s a pretty common disorder.


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Looking Ahead

Aside from being an occasional nuisance, heartburn can persist to the point when it affects daily life, in which case a trip to the doctor is necessary. Such prolonged heartburn is often classified as GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, and can lead to serious downstream complications like esophogeal cancer.

Avoiding Heartburn

When it comes to avoiding the heartburn, prevention is all about lifestyle modification:

— Maintain a healthy weight: Excess pounds push the stomach up, causing acid to back up into the esophagus.

— Avoid tight-fitting clothing: Clothes that fit tightly around your waist put pressure on the lower esophagus (say goodbye to those tighty-whities).

— Avoid foods and drinks that trigger heartburn and eat smaller meals.

— Don’t lie down directly after eating: Wait at least two to three hours.

— Elevate the head of your bed: An elevation of about six inches puts gravity to work for you and keeps stomach acid where it belongs — in the stomach.

What to do When Heartburn Strikes

The most common remedy for relief when it comes to heartburn is an antacid. Sold over the counter, antacids are generally a base or basic salt, and thus act as stomach acid neutralizers. While antacids will offer near instant relief, by no means are they a cure, nor should they be used as a life-long alternative to positive lifestyle modification.

Aside from antacids, medications that reduce acid production, such as famotidine (Pepcid AC) or ranitidine (Zantac 75) and medications that help the esophagus heal, such as lansoprazole (Prevacid 24 HR) and omeprazole (Prilosec OTC), are all viable treatment options. Most are sold over the counter, but if you need help deciding which to take or require more powerful medications, consulting your family doc is probably the way to go.

Going the Hippie Route With Heartburn

If traditional medicines aren’t keeping heartburn at bay, several alternative options are available, although as with most alternative treatments, direct evidence of their effectiveness might be lacking.

Taking deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) tablets before meals has been known to do wonders for the digestive system. Similarly, drinking pure aloe vera juice three times a day (between meals) is great for fast-acting relief, if you can stand the taste. Also, rice bran oil has been hailed as a savior for chronic heartburn sufferers. Three doses a day taken on an empty stomach is supposed to do the trick. Finally, taking a page from grandma’s cookbook, try drinking apple cider vinegar mixed into distilled water (you can add honey into the mix for flavor). It's certainly worth a try.

Last Resorts for Heartburn

If heartburn becomes chronic, there are several procedures at your disposal, all of which can be arranged after seeing your doctor.

Nissen fundoplication surgery wraps the upper portion of the stomach around the lower portion of the esophagus, helping to prevent acid reflux.

The Enteryx procedure uses an endoscope (a tube down the throat) to inject a liquid polymer that will serve as an acid barrier between the stomach and esophagus.

Lastly, a newer procedure, the Stretta procedure is a minimally invasive method that uses radiofrequency energy delivered through an endoscope to expose the esophageal sphincter to heat. Heat causes the tissues of the esophageal sphincter to constrict, reducing the chances of acid regurgitation once tissues heal.

Life Without Heartburn

Heartburn is one of the most common ailments that we face on a day-to-day basis. Though usually mild and nothing more than annoying, the burn should not be taken lightly, as it often means that you’re making some unhealthy lifestyle choices. When ignored, heartburn can lead to serious downstream complications so be proactive and nip the bud before it burns.