Originally created 09/04/01

Age old question



Q: What causes heartburn? - M.S., Keysville, Ga.

A: There's nothing like fireworks at the end of a great meal, unless the fireworks are taking place inside your stomach!

The National Institutes of Health estimates that nearly 60 million Americans suffer from heartburn - and 25 million have heartburn every day. Heartburn can be hereditary or caused by obesity, gastro-esophageal reflux disease, overindulgence in food or drink, or the use of aspirin or non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs.

Heartburn can occur whenever you eat. When you digest food, the food passes from the mouth, down the esophagus and into the stomach. Once the food reaches the stomach, acids begin to break it down. If the band of muscle that is separating the esophagus from the stomach isn't functioning as it should, stomach acid can back up into the unlined esophagus, causing the all-too-familiar burning sensation, chest pain and general abdominal discomfort.

Heartburn is often mistaken for a heart attack. Sufferers general rely on a constant stream of antacids and often lose sleep because of this condition.

Foods to avoid include coffee, chocolate, carbonated/caffeinated soft drinks, onions, alcohol, garlic, fatty foods, tomato products and mints. Keeping a food diary and a record of when you have heartburn can help you identify troublesome foods and drinks.

Losing weight or stopping smoking also will help. Smoking can increase the acid in your stomach, and extra weight places added pressure on your stomach and abdomen.

Never lie down immediately after a meal and avoid bedtime snacks. Elevate your upper body at night with an extra pillow or wedge to help the acids stay down in the stomach. Avoid wearing tight clothing. It puts added pressure on your abdomen as well.

According to the Mayo Clinic, many people ignore heartburn because they believe it is not a serious condition. Ongoing heartburn can be a symptom of a more serious problem and should always be treated seriously. If your heartburn is persistent or severe, a doctor can prescribe medications or advise you of lifestyle changes to help combat it. Surgery is the last resort.

Chronic heartburn can be an indicator of gastro-esophageal reflux disease. GERD occurs when the esophagus becomes irritated or inflamed. Common signs of GERD as defined by the Mayo Clinic are: frequent heartburn, heartburn that occurs often at night, heartburn that seems to improve when antacids are used, difficult or painful swallowing, sour or bitter-tasting fluid entering your mouth from your throat, occasional nausea, frequent belching or burping. Medications, hiatal hernia, family history and impaired stomach functioning can all contribute to GERD. If left untreated, GERD can contribute to permanent damage of the esophagus, ulcers and even cancer.

If you have a question or would like additional information, please write to Shirley McIntosh, Resource Center on Aging, 2803 Wrightsboro Road, Suite 51, Augusta, GA 30909.