When my patients come in complaining of getting burning chest pain after eating spicy food, or burping up hot acid and/or regurgitating food that wakes them up in the middle of the night, almost always they’ll describe their symptoms as “heartburn” or “indigestion”. In some instances they’re correct, but others not. Some patients actually have acid reflux disorder, or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disorder), which has a different physical cause and requires different treatment than heartburn. What’s the difference? Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about today!
Heartburn is a relatively common condition. In fact, over 60,000,000 Americans have heartburn symptoms at least once a month! Heartburn can occur after eating too much acidic, spicy, or high fat foods at one time like having spaghetti with tomato sauce for dinner, a glass of wine, salad with vinaigrette dressing, and a piece of rich chocolate cake for dessert. Eating like this is almost always a recipe for heartburn that can keep you awake most of the night trying to put out the fire in your chest! You may even burp up hot acid into the back of your throat.
The prime offenders of heartburn are usually the following:
- Tomato sauce
- Citrus fruits: Oranges, grapefruit, lemons
- Fried and/or high fat foods like nuts, avocado, high fat meats
- Carbonated sodas
- Spicy foods – jalapeno pepper, cayenne, red pepper, “hot sauce” items
- Garlic and onion
- Peppermint – confusing, as it’s touted as a stomach soother, but the oils in peppermint can relax the lower esophageal sphincter and cause acid to creep back up the esophagus
How To Avoid Heartburn
If you’re sensitive to the above foods, and find that eating them brings on a case of heartburn, it’s best then to avoid them. If you have severe heartburn that occurs more than 2 times a week, you may actually have acid reflux, or GERD, a condition that you should see a doctor for. Other ways to avoid triggering heartburn include:
- Don’t eat in a rush – gulping down food can cause you not to digest it properly
- Don’t eat a big meal and lie down – take a 20-30 minute walk to help you digest your food before going to bed for the night or lying down on the couch to watch TV
- Eat smaller meals – don’t combine known trigger foods at one time
- Don’t wear tight clothes – especially around your waist
- Don’t smoke – triggers heartburn by stimulating digestive acids
- Use a digestive – like oolong tea with your food. Helps break down heavy fats, neutralize acids, digest food and move it out of the stomach faster
Acid reflux, or GERD, on the other hand, is somewhat more involved than the occasional case of simple heartburn. At the base of your stomach, there is a structure called the lower esophageal sphincter, or LES, a valve that opens and shuts letting acid-digested food pass out of your stomach into your small intestine.
If we eat heavy, oily, acidic dishes, or sometimes, even peppermint, the LES can relax so much that digestive acids reflux, or come back up the esophagus. This refluxed acid usually causes pain and burning. You can also regurgitate swallowed food, begin to cough, sometimes chronically, if acid droplets persistently get into your lungs. In addition, there are several other symptoms that can be caused by acid reflux that may surprise you including:
- Chronic hiccups, burping – you swallow more trying to keep regurgitated food down
- Chronic sore throat – acid can cause inflammation and pain of the throat tissues
- Chronic hoarseness or “hot potato” voice – acid can affect your vocal chords as well
- Bloody stool – acid can cause irritation and bleeding along the digestive tract
- Sinus congestion – mucus protects the lining of your sinuses. Acid can back so far up the throat that it stimulates mucus production in response to the irritating agent
How To Avoid Acid Reflux Symptoms
Like heartburn, acid reflux can have many of the same triggers including the same foods (see list above), smoking, and/or going to bed or lying down on the couch right after eating a big meal. In addition there are several other things that can bring on a bout of acid reflux including:
- Muscle relaxants – like ibuprofen, also relax the LES muscles and keep the valve open
- Aspirin – causes irritation of the stomach
- Certain health conditions – like diabetes, pregnancy, and stress can aggravate acid reflux by loosening the LES
- Constant stress – can cause you to overproduce digestive acid
What Can You Do – Some Natural Treatments
As I tell my patients, we can all experience a bout of heartburn, or perhaps even acid reflux, on occasion from overindulgence in food and drink. Avoiding, or minimizing, the triggers listed here can help you avoid heartburn and/or acid reflux. However, if you do still get the occasional heartburn or acid reflux, here are some natural remedies you can try on your own:
- Green, “Granny Smith” apple – the strong malic acid in these apples helps counteract sour digestive acids and soothe irritation. Eat the entire apple.
- Apple Cider Vinegar – A natural, “kitchen medicine” cure for acid reflux. 2 tablespoons good quality apple cider vinegar in cool water has given many near instant relief.
- Take Licorice – deglycyrrhized licorice lozenges found in health food stores stimulates production of mucus that protects the digestive tract. The anti-inflammatory properties heal inflamed tissues and prevent further damage to the digestive tract.
- Take Ginger – long used for digestive upsets, tea or lozenges (found in health food stores), helps neutralize digestive acids.
- Drink plain, filtered water – at onset of acid. Water dilutes the acid and helps move digested food out of the stomach.
- Mila – a high Omega-3 fat natural food/seed from the Chia plant. Absorbs 7-10 times its weight in liquid. Drinking 1/3-cup Mila gel at onset of acid quells the burning pain.
- Chewing gum – for minor cases of heartburn, chewing a stick of gum, for some people, will relieve it almost immediately.
Heartburn and acid reflux are at best uncomfortable and at worst very painful conditions, which can recur if you continue to indulge in poor dietary and lifestyle habits. Following the suggestions offered here can help you avoid triggering these conditions in the future.
Remember to see your doctor if you experience severe symptoms of heartburn and/or acid reflux 2 or more times a week. Untreated, chronic acid reflux can weaken and damage digestive tract tissues that can lead to more serious conditions.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.