Cooling the Fire of Heartburn

by Cindy Haines, M.D. Health Professional

Heartburn is one of those symptoms that seriously commands your attention. First off, it can really hurt. Odds are good that your skin has rarely felt as fiery as your belly may feel during an attack of heartburn. Secondly, while it doesn't actually involve your heart, heartburn can give you the sense that something is amiss deep among your vital organs.

Heartburn can be a problem that you should bring to your doctor's attention. But as painful as this common condition can be, it's also something that you can also help treat and prevent on your own.

Heartburn arises when the contents of your stomach move the wrong way. The food and drink you swallow is supposed to only travel south from your mouth, but during heartburn, food, drink, and stomach juices move upward past the "doorway" between your esophagus and stomach. Your esophagus isn't as naturally protected against this harsh material as your stomach lining, thus it causes pain.

If heartburn strikes you often enough, you may have a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Over time, GERD can lead to scarring in your esophagus. It can also lead to abnormal changes in cells in your esophagus, which can become cancerous. That's why you should talk to your doctor if you've been using antacids or other over-the-counter treatments for GERD symptoms for more than two weeks.

Your doctor can recommend a variety of medications or procedures to address the problem. However, my new mission for 2011 is to emphasize the importance of protecting your health without using so much health care. (In late spring, my book - The New Prescription
¬- will discuss how you can stay healthy with less costly health care.)

Here's how you can put out the fire of heartburn using free or inexpensive self-care strategies:

  • Lose weight. Obesity can put you at risk of GERD. As a result, if you're carrying around extra pounds, heartburn relief is a great reason to take steps to shed them.

  • Stop smoking. This costly habit may also add to your GERD burden. If you smoke, quitting is also a quick way to address heartburn, and it may save you from many other illnesses.

  • Figure your triggers. A number of foods can play a role in heartburn, the burning pain also called "acid indigestion," or reflux, which is the upward movement of stomach contents. These don't bother everyone, but it's worth exploring whether you feel worse after you eat certain foods. If they bother you, cut back on them or eliminate them from your diet: peppermint, caffeinated drinks, alcohol, fried food, onions, garlic, spicy foods, chocolate, and citrus fruits and juices.

  • Eat small meals. Stuffing yourself may challenge your stomach's ability to keep everything where it belongs. Be careful to not eat too much at one time.

  • Check your medications. A variety of medications can play a role in heartburn, including certain drugs for high blood pressure, asthma, and anxiety. Consider asking your doctor whether your medications may be playing a role (and if you're already planning a trip just to discuss your heartburn, you should certainly bring a list of the medicines you're taking).

Cindy Haines, M.D.
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Cindy Haines, M.D.

Cindy Haines, M.D., wrote about diet and exercise for HealthCentral.