What is Heartburn?
Heartburn is the name given to that unpleasant feeling in your chest, right behind your breastbone. This burning sensation can go up to one’s neck and throat and is most often a symptom of acid reflux. Heartburn is most commonly felt by people after eating heavy meals, or foods that don’t sit well with their digestive system.
Causes of Heartburn
To understand the root cause of heartburn, it is essential to first understand how our stomach and oesophagus work. When we eat, the food passes down a long tube that connects the mouth and stomach. This tube is called the oesophagus, also known as the food pipe. At the bottom of the oesophagus is a valve, called the oesophagal sphincter. This valve opens to let food through and then closes to keep the stomach’s contents down. Inside the stomach is a very strong acidic mixture that starts the process of breaking down the food (this is called digestion). The stomach is designed to hold this mixture. However, the oesophagus isn’t able to hold this mixture without getting hurt. This is because the stomach is designed to withstand the acid, while the food pipe is not.
Sometimes, the valve that separates the stomach and oesophagus doesn’t close properly, and some of the acidic mixtures from the stomach goes back up the oesophagus. This is called acid reflux. When you have reflux, you’ll often feel the burning sensation that’s heartburn. (1)
Heartburn in itself is not a medical condition and has nothing to do with the heart. It is merely a symptom of acid reflux. (2)
Heartburn is caused by lifestyle and eating habits as well. Excess consumption of raw foods like onions, citrus fruits, high fat foods, alcohol, caffeinated and carbonated beverages can trigger acid reflux and result in heartburn. Lifestyle characteristics like being overweight, being a chain-smoker, and having extreme stress levels can also trigger heartburn. (1)
Symptoms of heartburn include, but are not limited to :
• A sour or unpleasant taste in the mouth
• A burning feeling in the throat
• Difficulty in swallowing
• A cough or hiccups that keep coming back
• A hoarse voice
• Feeling bloated
• Feeling nauseous
• Bad breath
• A burning sensation in the middle of the chest
• Pain that worsens when lying down or bending over
• Pain in the middle of the chest (1)(3)
The Difference Between Heartburn and a Heart Attack :
As mentioned above, heartburn occurs when the acid in the stomach rises up into the oesophagus, into the mouth. Since the oesophagus isn’t designed to withstand such amounts of acid, this can cause pain in the chest and discomfort. Heartburn is, therefore, more of a digestive issue and has little to do with the heart.
A heart attack occurs when a major artery or the arteries in our heart do not get enough blood flow and oxygen. When a person suffers from a heart attack, it is because their heart cannot work to produce more blood flow. This is characterised by intense chest pain, but also other factors. Other major symptoms of a heart attack include –
- Sudden pain
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in the neck, jaw or back
- Discomfort in the shoulders
- Feeling weak or faint.
Heartburn typically includes a burning sensation that starts in the upper part of the stomach and radiates to the chest. On the other hand, a heart attack typically includes an uncomfortable sensation in the centre or the left side of the chest that is sometimes described as pressure, squeezing, or a “fullness.” It is advisable to consult a doctor in case the chest pain is persistent. (4)
Home Remedies for Heartburn/Acid Reflux
The only way to completely treat digestive problems is to first find out the reason What Causes Digestive Problems and treat it. But, there still are a few lifestyle and dietary changes one can make easily and without spending a lot of money :
• The first and foremost recommendation to treat acid reflux is eating healthy and eating small meals at regular intervals, instead of eating large meals at disproportionate intervals.
•Eating the last meal of the day 2 to 3 hours before sleeping is also recommended so that the stomach has enough time to digest the food consumed.
•Exercising can also help to a great extent as it improves the body’s ability to perform its functions optimally. (6)
•Limiting the intake of coffee and other caffeinated beverages can help alleviate heartburn significantly.
•Limiting the intake of carbonated drinks- the bubbles in carbonated beverages cause people to burp more often - an effect that can increase the amount of acid escaping into the oesophagus.
•Limiting the intake of citrus juices. Citrus juices (of fruits like oranges and grapes) are considered triggers of heartburn as they contain highly acidic ingredients with ascorbic acid, which can cause acid reflux if taken in excess.
•Limiting alcohol intake. Alcohol aggravates symptoms of acid reflux by increasing the acid produced in the stomach and impairs the ability of the oesophagus to clear out the acid so produced.
•Limiting the intake of high fat foods like pizza, sausages, potato chips, and other fried foods. Consuming high fat foods like these may result in the release of bile salts into the digestive tract, thereby causing irritation in the oesophagus. It is advisable to consume a moderate amount of foods that contain healthy fats, instead of completely eliminating fats from one’s diet. (7)
•Include foods like oatmeal, vegetables, ginger, egg whites, lean meats and non-citrus fruits in your diet. (8)
Heartburn and acid reflux can be extremely uncomfortable and panic inducing, especially when coupled with chest pain. It is therefore important to emphasise that these conditions can be easily prevented with some fundamental lifestyle changes and an overall healthy way of living. Another thing worth taking away from the article is that heart attacks and heartburn are two completely different things. The reader now has the tools to differentiate between them, along with a plan of action to follow in each case.