Heartburn: Feeling that burn
It could have been that grapefruit you had for breakfast or the late-night chocolate ice cream fest you indulged in right before bed. Whatever the cause, there’s now a familiar burning sensation under your breastbone that’s stretching up to your throat and creating a sour taste in your mouth. Readers, this is heartburn. “Heartburn refers to pain coming from the chest or throat, caused when stomach acid refluxes back up into the esophagus,” says Dr. Bill Cavers, a family doctor in Victoria, BC.
When we swallow, a muscle around the bottom of the esophagus, the lower esophageal sphincter (or LES), relaxes to allow food and drink to flow down into the stomach. After you’ve swallowed a mouthful, the muscle tightens up again. If the LES relaxes too much, or becomes weak, we can experience reflux.
Food can be a common culprit, says Christy Brissette, a registered dietitian and president of 80 Twenty Nutrition in Toronto. “I see plenty of clients for digestive issues and heartburn is one of the most frequent problems I hear about,” she says.
There are an array of issues and circumstances beyond food that can increase a person’s chances of feeling the burn. Pressure on the stomach due to a big tummy (from carrying excess weight or a pregnancy), or even intense exercise, can cause heartburn. Smoking can be a trigger, as can certain medications including ibuprofen, antihistamines, sleeping pills and iron supplements. Stress can be to blame, too, increasing a person’s production of stomach acid, which can pose a problem for some people. A more serious condition, like a hiatal hernia (which occurs when a small section of stomach bulges up through a hole in the diaphragm) can also create reflux.
Occasional heartburn is common and not typically cause for concern, say the experts. But, if the usually recommended lifestyle changes and over-the-counter remedies aren’t working — or you’re popping antacids like candy — it’s time to talk to your doctor to rule out a more serious condition. Read on for all the facts and tools you need to beat the burn.