What triggers heartburn?

Chances are, you’ve experienced heartburn at some point in your life. With symptoms of burning or aching in your chest and triggers including diet and lifestyle choices, it is estimated that at least 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month, with 15 million experiencing symptoms each day. And while heartburn is common and not usually cause for concern there are some instances where you should make an appointment with your doctor.

What exactly is heartburn?

Heartburn is experienced as a pain or burning sensation in your chest, usually behind the breastbone. You may find that symptoms worsen after specific meals or during certain activities, and the burning sensation is sometimes accompanied by an acidic or bitter taste in your mouth.

Like GERD or acid reflux, heartburn occurs when stomach acid backs up into your esophagus. Typically, a band of muscle at the base of your esophagus relaxes (to allow for swallowing) and contracts to prevent stomach contents from coming up. If the muscle becomes weak or does not function properly, acid can rise, causing acid reflux and heartburn. It becomes easier for these stomach acids to leak up through a weakened esophageal sphincter when you are laying down or bending over.

What are some of the triggers for heartburn?

Diet and food choices are some of the biggest contributors to heartburn. Spicy foods, caffeine, and alcohol can all cause heartburn to occur, as can fried foods or foods with high-fat content, citrus, and even tomatoes and tomato products (ketchup, marinara, etc.). Some proteins, like ground beef, chicken wings or nuggets, and dairy products including sour cream, ice cream, and cottage cheese can also trigger symptoms. Eating large meals of any type should also be avoided. Other risk factors, such as smoking, obesity, and even pregnancy can also be contributing factors to heartburn.

When should I see a doctor?

As we mentioned above, heartburn is fairly common and it is not always cause for concern. However, you may want to see a doctor for frequent, regular occurrences (2 times each week or more) or unmanaged symptoms that cannot be improved with over-the-counter medications. If you’ve also unsuccessfully attempted to make diet and lifestyle choices in hopes of improving your symptoms, a gastroenterologist can assess your situation, order testing and come up with a treatment plan.

Regularly occurring heartburn is associated with acid reflux or GERD, and when left untreated, can cause significant damage to the esophagus. Barrett’s esophagus is another disease or possible complication, resulting in esophageal damage due to excess stomach acid exposure. This occurs when the tissue lining of the esophagus has changed and can be a precursor to esophageal cancer. Treatment options can range from frequent monitoring to prescription medication or proton pump inhibitors, or even surgery in some instances depending on the severity and frequency.

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