Heartburn Overview


This painful burning sensation behind the breastbone strikes more than 60 million Americans a month, usually an hour or two after eating. It can be felt as high up as in the jaws and the back of the throat, resulting in hoarseness, and can even radiate into the arms and back.


The flame to blame is stomach acid, which enters into the esophagus via the lower esophageal sphincter at the top of the stomach. When things go awry, this muscular valve – which normally opens and shuts to let food pass – can reopen, allowing acid to shoot upward. Some contributing factors are high-fat and spicy foods, including chocolate, peppermint, and garlic; certain medications, such as aspirin; smoking; beverages that contain carbonation, caffeine, or alcohol; and hiatal hernia.

How Serious

Occasional heartburn is not serious. However, chronic, severe heartburn is a symptoms of a reflux problem, meaning that stomach acid is regularly flowing upward, often due to a faulty esophageal sphincter. Reflux can result in complications such as bleeding, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, and even weight loss. Self-treating this condition long-term also can mask more serious problems, namely, cancer of the esophageal. Between the early 1970s and the early 1990s, the death rate for esophageal cancer in men increased by 24 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. Since this cancer is far more common in males, many doctors recommends seeing a physician if your heartburn occurs three or four times a week for weeks at a time.


Pop an antacid. Yes, it’s painfully obvious, but taking an antacid makes sense because it contains chemicals that neutralize acid instantaneously. Be aware, however, that the four types of antacids have their own side effects. Magnesium salts are more likely to cause diarrhea and should not be taken by people with kidney disease. Aluminum salts can trigger constipation and can weaken bones with overuse. Calcium salts such as Tums can lead to kidney stones if taken long-term. And some sodium salts ,such as those Alka-Seltzer products that contain aspirin, can cause stomach irritation.

Many of the antacids out there are a combination of these ingredients. Maalox and Mylanta, for example, contain both magnesium and aluminum. And Rolaids contains magnesium and calcium. So, which antacid works best? Well, it’s no exact science, but many experts recommend the antacids that contain a combination of magnesium and aluminum such as Maalox, which is best been taken one hour and three hours after a meal and at bedtime in a dose of about two to three teaspoons at a time. You can use these for your heartburn pain unless you have kidney disease. And if you are taking a prescription drug, you should check with your doctor before taking any antacid.

Quench the fire. Drinking an eight-ounce glass of water may bring temporary relief. Water can wash acid back down the esophagus and dilute the acid in the stomach. But since water absorbs quickly in the stomach, don’t expect this relief to last long. This is best used to buy yourself some time until the antacid kicks in.

Don’t be fooled by milk. The worst thing you can do for heartburn is drink a glass of milk before bedtime. Sure, milk neutralizes acid when you take it, but during the night, it produces more acid. So you wake up two to three hours after you go to bed with intense heartburn from that glass of milk.

Outsmart gravity. If you must lie down within several hours of eating, raise the head of your bed. Prop six-inch blocks under the headboard bed legs or place a foam, triangular-shape wedge under your shoulders. But don’t use pillows to prop yourself up. Often, people end up with the pillows under their heads, not their shoulder. So they don’t get the elevation they need. If sleeping in chairs has become a habit to get relief at night, he warns, it’s time to see your doctor.

Alternative Approaches

Sip soy. Unlike cow’s milk, soy milk soothe heartburn without making it worse hours later. Mix 2 tablespoons chlorophyll with 1/2 cup soy milk, and drink it slowly. You can do this two to four times a day for up to two weeks. If you haven’t gotten relief from your heartburn after those two weeks, you should see a doctor, he advises. And if you are allergic to soy, you should not try this remedy, he adds.

Mix a vinegar cocktail. As unpleasant as it sounds, apple cider vinegar aids digestion and eases heartburn by neutralizing excess acid. And since the pH in the cider is not the same as antacids, it’s more natural and doesn’t damage the stomach like antacids can. Mix 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar with 8 ounces water and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon honey. Take this once in the morning and once at night, as needed. You can also drink this mixtures after a meal if you are having digestive problems.

Position your belly. A common heartburn cause, hiatal hernia can keep food from going down the esophagus. To bring quick relief, press the fingers of both of your hands just snug underneath the “V” in the center of your rib cage and push the top of your stomach downward. You can do one swift push or several different pushes. This is not a dangerous procedure, though a chiropractor trained to do this will tend to do it more effectively and faster.

Heat things up. Putting a heating pad on a certain spot in your back can help bring relief from heartburn. The spine is related to the digestive organs. In particular, the area just below your shoulder blades has nerves that supply the upper gastrointestinal tract, which includes the esophageal sphincter – a major player in heartburn .

Lie on the back with a heating pad under the spot between your shoulder blades for 20 minutes and put your feet up on a pillow or two. Just make sure that you wear a shirt to prevent getting burned. Lying in this position and applying heat helps you to relax. Since tension and stress often cause heartburn, alleviating that stress can also alleviate your heartburn.

Preventive Measures

Eat light. A very full stomach increases incidence of heartburn, probably by forcing the LES open. So keep portions small. In fact, you shouldn’t eat anything within two to three hours of going to sleep.

Plan and prevent. When anticipating a fattening or spicy meal, it makes sense to take an over-the-counter H2 receptor antagonist (such as Zantac or Pepcid AC) 20 to 40 minutes beforehand, which neutralize acid, H2 receptors block acid production, preventing heartburn.

H2 receptors also work when taken after meals. But remember that, unlike the immediate relief of antacids, they take 20 to 40 minutes to kick in. The effects, however, last hours longer.

Eat your enzymes. With age, our bodies produce fewer enzymes, and we rarely eat enough enzyme-supplying fruits and vegetables. So it’s good idea to supplement. If you are eating primarily proteins and fats, you are not getting enough enzymes in your food and your body has to use its own supply. For those concern, it recommends taking one digestive food enzyme capsule about 15 minutes before meals to help digestion. Some men may have to take an enzyme capsule everyday before every meal, while others may only need to take it occasionally. You can buy digestive food enzymes at most health food stores.

Turn out stress. So many people eat in front of the TV or discuss problems at the dinner table, creating a nervous stomach and, as a result, heartburn. To control your postmeal outcome, declare dinnertime a stress-free zone by eating slowly in a pleasant atmosphere and listening to relaxing music.