Is There More to Heartburn?
You know that burning sensation you feel in your chest after you eat a large meal or spicy foods? We call it heartburn, yet it has nothing to do with your heart. It is actually a common condition caused by acid reflux—when stomach acid comes back into the esophagus. Heartburn affects everyone at some point in their life. Yet, as you get older you may notice more frequent occurrences of heartburn. This is not simply a by-product of aging, there may be a more serious condition behind your heartburn.
Common Reasons Your Heartburn is Frequent
As you get older, your muscles weaken. This includes your esophageal sphincter. The esophageal sphincter is the doorway between your esophagus and your stomach. It opens when you swallow your food and then typically stays tightly shut. As the muscle weakens throughout your life, stomach acid flows more easily into the esophagus. Weight gain can also cause the sphincter to weaken in the same way as certain medications. Antidepressants, opiates, and blood pressure medication are all known to cause heartburn. People over the age of 60 often have a hiatal hernia which causes the upper part of the stomach to press into the chest cavity. Large hiatal hernias can be the culprit behind heartburn.
Heartburn that Isn’t Just Heartburn
If you experience heartburn at least twice a week, you may actually have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD occurs when the esophageal lining is irritated as a result of frequent reflux. You can have a mild to severe case of GERD depending on the frequency of your heartburn. GERD can lead to more serious issues like esophageal stricture which occurs when the esophagus narrows due to the buildup of scar tissue. Stomach acid can cause the esophageal tissue to dissolve leaving an open sore known as an esophageal ulcer. GERD can also lead to Barrett’s esophagus which alters the tissue lining and raises your risk for esophageal cancer. If your heartburn occurs frequently within one week, talk to your doctor. While GERD can be uncomfortable, there are simple lifestyle changes you can make that can help reduce your symptoms.
Ways to Prevent Heartburn
While weakening muscles is beyond your control, there are certain things you can do to prevent heartburn from happening frequently. The first thing you can do is stop smoking. Smoking weakens the esophageal sphincter and reduces your production of saliva, which helps neutralize stomach acid. You can also reduce your alcohol consumption or remove it from your diet completely.
Alcohol simultaneously weakens the esophageal sphincter and increases the amount of stomach acid. Pay attention to which drinks cause heartburn and eliminate them as a beverage choice. Try eating several smaller meals throughout the day, or a larger lunch and a smaller dinner. Avoid snacking late at night and don’t lie down immediately after eating. Instead, wait at least three hours after eating before you go to sleep. Avoid foods that are high in fat, deep-fried, spicy, or acidic. These are all known triggers of heartburn. Pay attention to your body after you drink coffee, eat chocolate, or consume tomato-based products. Keep a food log so you know which foods may be triggers for you, and then reduce your heartburn frequency by cutting those foods from your diet.
If you experience heartburn, bring your notes about triggers and frequency to your doctor at Gastroenterology Consultants of Savannah. We can help you determine the best course of action to reduce heartburn occurrences. If you suffer from heartburn more than twice a week, schedule an appointment with us. We want to help you avoid heartburn and determine whether or not you have GERD.