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Heartburn does not actually involve the heart; rather, it's a burning sensation in the chest caused by stomach acid that has traveled in the wrong direction due to a weakened or relaxed lower esophageal sphincter (the band of muscle around the bottom of the esophagus). When functioning properly, the sphincter acts like a gate; it relaxes to ensure the correct flow of food down into the stomach, and then it retightens to block the highly acidic stomach contents from coming back up and wreaking havoc. If heartburn becomes a frequent occurrence, it may be considered gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. This phenomenon can occur due to many causes including stress, pregnancy, certain medications, overeating, exercising on a full stomach and being overweight or obese.
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More than half of heartburn sufferers taking medications feel less than satisfied with their results (per a recent Gallup survey). Fortunately, there are many remedies for heartburn besides simply reaching into the medicine cabinet; just a few diet changes may be enough ward off the fiery sensation. Though it very much depends on the individual, there are several common trigger foods that tend to affect many people and may be worth avoiding.
• Coffee and other caffeinated food and drink
• Carbonated beverages
• Spicy foods
• Citrus fruits and juices
• Tomatoes and tomato products
• Large, fatty and/or fried meals
Pictured Recipe: Grilled Polenta & Vegetables with Lemon-Caper Vinaigrette
Eating a more plant-based, Mediterranean-style diet may help ease heartburn symptoms as much as medication, according to new research. Plus, it's good for your heart, weight and brain health—not to mention delicious.
Refrain from overeating (a good rule of thumb overall anyway). Too much food in your stomach at one time can exacerbate symptoms. Here are 10 simple ways to control portions to help keep you from eating too much at one time.
You want to give yourself time to digest before heading to bed. This allows the stomach to empty before you lie down.
If you eat too many carbohydrates at one time, your blood sugar can spike. Too many carbs may also increase abdominal pressure.
Opt for whole grains, fruit and starchy vegetables over refined grains like white bread and pasta because the fiber will help reduce the spike in blood sugar.
Eating foods high in fiber may be protective. In a study published in the journal Gut, researchers found that people who consumed the most fiber had a 20 percent lower risk of experiencing serious heartburn.
If you're a fan of chewing gum, you're in luck: it has been shown to help ease symptoms, thanks to increased saliva production. Try keeping a pack of gum handy just in case (but avoid peppermint- or spearmint-flavored gum if mint is a trigger food).
Fat can relax the valve between your esophagus and stomach and slow the rate at which food exits, creating more opportunities for reflux. British researchers found that keeping a meal’s fat to under 30 grams lowered reflux symptom frequency by 40 percent. Bonus: In addition to cutting the fat, keeping meals under 500 calories reduced acid reflux episodes.
If you're a frequent napper, try napping sitting up in a chair instead of lying horizontally in bed, where it's easier for stomach contents to defy gravity.
Sleeping on your left side may prevent reflux as well, because the esophagus meets the stomach on the right side. Elevating the head of your bed slightly (about 4 to 6 inches) is also worth trying, as this slight angle makes it more difficult for stomach contents to creep back up into the esophagus.
Even tight clothing or belts around the waist can aggravate heartburn by increasing abdominal pressure, so wear looser clothing that's less constricting.
Instead of turning into a couch potato after dinner, go for a walk, as light activity has been shown to help decrease stomach acidity.
If you are a smoker, quitting may help ease symptoms (and is a good idea for many other health reasons).
A 2017 analysis looking at both traditional acupuncture and electroacupuncture (which stimulates acupuncture points with electricity instead of needles) found that these treatments reduced reflux recurrence by 40 percent. “Acupuncture improves overall digestive function,” by helping food and drink move along more smoothly, says Anna Folckomer, L.Ac., a licensed acupuncturist. Acupuncture may also decrease pain perception.
Though heartburn is very common, it shouldn't be ignored: ongoing reflux can cause serious damage to the lining of the esophagus. Be sure to consult your doctor if you're experiencing heartburn and before starting or changing any medications.
Watch: How to Quinoa Avocado Salad
Some reporting by Christine Yu for EatingWell Magazine