Heartburn is a super common digestive discomfort that millions of Americans suffer from regularly. Of those who suffer, even more have severe acid reflux or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). And for some reason, the number of sufferers and the frequency are on the rise – and scientists don’t know why.
Some speculate that the increase in stress, obesity and processed foods that Americans
have taken on in the past couple decades might be the biggest offenders.
So when should you worry? Dr. Anezi Bakken answered some of the more common questions to try to figure out what the deal is with heartburn and what you can do about it.
What’s the difference between heartburn and GERD?
“Heartburn is one of many possible symptoms of GERD,” says Dr. Bakken. “GERD means reflux of stomach contents into the esophagus.” So heartburn isn’t always the end result but might be an indication that something more serious is going on.
And GERD usually comes with more than just a fiery feeling in your chest and throat: “It can also cause…burping, chest pain, nausea, difficulty swallowing, cough and sore throat,” says Dr. Bakken.
What are some of the causes?
As it turns out, there are a bunch of factors that can contribute to heartburn. Some food-related causes could be “caffeine, spicy or rich foods, overeating, alcohol, tomato sauces or citrus,” explains Dr. Bakken.
Other triggers are smoking, lack of sleep, stress and even over-the-counter headache medicine.
Beyond that, a hiatal hernia might be the culprit. This type of hernia causes part of your stomach to push against your diaphragm, giving food and acid the chance to crawl back up your esophagus.
I have heartburn almost every day. Should I be worried?
“If you have heartburn every day you should seek medical care from a physician to identify the cause,” says Dr. Bakken. Occasional heartburn from your trigger foods is one thing, but “there is an increased risk for Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer in patients with chronic and persistent GERD,” says Dr. Bakken.
What are some things I can do to prevent heartburn? Do over-the-counter products really work?
According to Dr. Bakken, some over-the-counter antacids “can help with very mild and occasional symptoms but stronger medications are often needed” for more frequent or intense warning signs.
To prevent or help reduce heartburn, you can try not eating within hours of laying down, losing weight and avoiding your trigger foods. You could keep a food journal to help narrow down the culprits. Then when you have heartburn, you can take a look at what might be irritating your stomach and (try to) avoid it. Here’s a great list of the best apps for food journaling. Even though most of these are meant for weight loss, they can come in handy for tracking heartburn symptoms too.
A good home remedy is baking soda. Its alkaline makeup neutralizes stomach acid and helps tame heartburn. Mix half a teaspoon in a glass of water and drink it down. If you have issues with sodium, you should check with your doctor first.
Another home remedy is gum. When you chew gum, you mouth generates saliva that keeps stomach acid moving along.
The bottom line is to keep an eye on your symptoms. If they get worse or more frequent, you should talk to your doctor.