Heartburn is a common problem. It's caused by the backwash of stomach acid into the esophagus, the tube connecting the mouth and stomach. This is formally called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). More than just a minor discomfort, heartburn can significantly reduce quality of life. "Heartburn can cause damage to the esophagus and even increase the risk of cancer if ignored and untreated," says Dr. William Kormos, editor in chief of Harvard Men's Health Watch and a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.
These eight steps can help ease heartburn.
- Eat in a heartburn-smart way. Large meals put pressure on the muscle that normally helps keep stomach contents from backing up into the esophagus. The more you eat, the longer it takes for the stomach to empty, which contributes to reflux. Try smaller, more frequent meals — and don't wolf down your food.
- Avoid late-night eating. Having a meal or snack within three hours of lying down to sleep can worsen reflux, causing heartburn. Leave enough time for the stomach to clear out.
- Don't exercise right after meals. Give your stomach time to empty; wait a couple of hours. But don't just lie down either, which will worsen reflux.
- Sleep on an incline. Raising your torso up a bit with a wedge-shaped cushion may ease nighttime heartburn. Wedges are available from medical supply companies and some home goods stores. Don't just prop your head and shoulders up with regular pillows — doing so can actually increase pressure on the stomach by curling you up at the waist.
- Identify and avoid foods associated with heartburn. Common offenders include fatty foods, spicy foods, tomatoes, garlic, milk, coffee, tea, cola, peppermint, and chocolate. Carbonated beverages cause belching, which also causes reflux.
- Chew sugarless gum after a meal. Chewing gum promotes salivation, which helps neutralize acid, soothes the esophagus, and washes acid back down to the stomach. But avoid peppermint-flavored gum, which may trigger heartburn more than other flavors.
- Rule out medication side effects. Ask your doctor or pharmacist whether any of the medications you take might cause pain resembling heartburn or contribute to reflux.
- Lose weight if you need to. Being overweight puts more pressure on the stomach and pushes stomach contents into the esophagus. The tight-fitting clothing and belts that come with weight gain may also be a factor.
For more on relieving heartburn and treating a sensitive gut, purchase The Sensitive Gut by Harvard Medical School.