Heartburn. So, what is it, really?
Despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with the heart. Heartburn is an irritation of the esophagus -- the tube that connects your throat and stomach. It's caused by stomach acid. This leads to a burning discomfort in your upper belly or below your breastbone.
Most of us have experienced it at one time or another, but how can we stop it? Here are 8 ways to prevent and manage heartburn.
Most of us eat the way we do everything else – too fast! When you eat too fast, you take in more air with your food, which can distend your stomach and lead to belching – which can also force stomach contents upward. Try this: Take a bite, put your fork down, swallow, talk to your dining companions for a minute or read a page of your book, then pick up your fork and take another bite. A bonus: You’ll eat fewer calories because your body has more time to sense fullness, even though you’ve eaten less food.
Closely monitor your food choices
Although the traditional advice is to cut out certain foods like tomatoes, spicy foods, fried foods, and alcohol if you have heartburn, the evidence just doesn’t support it. Instead, learn what foods make your stomach burn. Grab a notebook and, over a week’s time, list the foods you eat during each meal. Then note any signs of heartburn and how long after eating they occur. Look for patters, and if you see a suspicious food, cut it out. If your condition improves, you’re done; if it doesn’t improve after a week, add back that food and cut out a different suspect.
When you’re upright, the contents of your stomach stay down, so walk instead of lying around after eating, raise the head of your bed in some way to keep stomach acid flowing downward, and even consider eating while standing if it helps. Stanford University researchers evaluated more than 2,000 students on treatments for heartburn or GERD and found that “gravity” solutions worked to prevent that burning feeling.
The closer you are to a “normal” weight, whatever that is for you, the fewer symptoms of heartburn and GERD you’ll experience. Why? The primary reason is probably that extra weight increases pressure on your abdomen. Also, overweight people are more likely to develop a hiatal hernia, which occurs when the top part of the stomach protrudes into the abdominal cavity, increasing reflux.
Skip that before-bed soda – or sleeping pill
It’s been found that carbonated beverages and the most widely prescribed class of sleeping pills- benzodiazepines like diazepam (Valium) and Iorazepam (Ativan) – can lead to heartburn during the night, disrupting our sleep. And no, you don’t have to swallow them together to get the result.
A study by Australian researchers found that applying very light stimulation to the wrist area with electrical acupoint stimulation (a needleless version of acupuncture) reduced relaxation in the lower esophagus – a contributor to GERD and reflux – by 40 percent during the stimulation compared to no change with a sham procedure.
See a sleep specialist
A sleep specialist for GERD? Yes, it seems that the same treatment used for obstructive sleep apnea, I which you stop breathing multiple times during the night can help with nocturnal GERD, or sever nighttime heartburn. The treatment is called continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). You sleep with a mask over your nose that’s attached to a machine that delivers pressurized air to maintain an open airway. It appears to work for GERD by increasing pressure in the back of the throat and preventing stomach contents from coming up into the esophagus, much the way a blowing fan keeps draperies pinned against a window. Since GERD and obstructive sleep apnea often occur together, that visit to the sleep specialist could be more worthwhile than you think.
Make a doctor’s appointment
Persistent backflow of digestive juices can damage the esophagus, possibly leading to a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, a potential precursor of esophageal cancer. If your heartburn has moved beyond the usual discomfort and is causing a chronic cough, nausea, vomiting, or wheezing, see your doctor immediately.
Heartburn will affect us all at one time or another, and unfortunately probably more as you age, so keep this advice handy for when it comes around for you!
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