There’s nothing worse than finishing a delicious meal with an uncomfortable bout of heartburn.
The unpleasant sensation is usually caused by stomach acid, which leaks into the oesophagus and travels up towards the throat, commonly causing what’s known as acid reflux.
Many of us will be familiar with the tell-tale signs – pain in your chest, a burning at the back of your throat that gets worse when you lie down – but how can you avoid feeling it in the first place?
What is heartburn?
“Acid reflux is a common condition that includes a burning pain, known as heartburn, in the chest,” says Dr Arun Thiyagarajan, medical director at Bupa Health Clinics (bupa.co.uk).
The pain you feel during an episode is largely down to the acidic stomach contents being forced up into the oesophagus – the tube connecting the mouth and stomach.
“Also known as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, this process brings stomach acids and enzymes into contact with the sensitive lining of the oesophagus,” explains Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan (healthspan.co.uk).
“The main symptoms of acid reflux include heartburn, a burning sensation in the middle of your chest and an unpleasant sour taste in your mouth that is caused by the travelling stomach acid,” says Dr Thiyagarajan.
Your symptoms are likely to be worse after eating and when lying down, which is why most people experience the reflux effect after eating a big dinner.
As well as causing a burning pain, experts explain that acid reflux can trigger a painful spasm of surrounding muscles. “Some people with acid reflux do not experience obvious symptoms, however this ‘silent reflux’ may contribute to some cases of hoarseness, voice problems, cough, sensations of a lump in the throat and repeated throat clearing,” says Brewer.
So, why does heartburn happen?
Dr Thiyagarajan explains that while anyone can experience acid reflux, there are many causes and risk factors. “These include certain foods and drinks, being overweight, stress and anxiety, smoking, medicines such as anti-inflammatory painkillers, hiatus hernia (where your stomach protrudes upwards) and being being pregnant,” he clarifies.
Top tips for beating heartburn
There are lots of things you can do to find relief from the regular onslaught of acid reflux, and making healthy lifestyle changes is one of the easiest and most effective options.
Here, we asked Dr Thiyagarajan to give us his top tips for beating the burn.
1. Avoid food and drink triggers
“People who regularly get heartburn will often find that it’s either caused, or made worse by, certain types of food and drink,” says Thiyagarajan. “For example, excessive alcohol or caffeine intake is likely to trigger heartburn if you’re prone to it, so you should take notice of this and manage your intake appropriately.”
It’s bad news for fast food lovers, as he says that fatty and fried foods like burgers and chicken wings can commonly lead to heartburn. That being said, each person is different, so it’s important to monitor your heartburn and understand what triggers it for you.
2. Take time out for you
Stress and anxiety can lead to many health issues if left unchecked, but what you might not know is that it can also be a trigger for heartburn.
“If you find yourself struggling to manage your work-life balance, or feeling constantly anxious about other things, try to understand why this is and take steps to help yourself better manage it,” says Thiyagarajan. “This means making more time for the things you enjoy, such as going for a walk, reading a book or spending more time with family.
“If you’re struggling to manage symptoms of stress or anxiety, don’t be afraid to speak to your GP who will be able to help you,” he adds.
3. Manage your weight
Being overweight can be one of the leading causes of heartburn, so getting in better shape can be key to reducing your symptoms, advises Thiyagarajan.
There are other benefits too. “By starting to exercise regularly and better managing your diet, you’ll also reap other rewards such as feeling fitter and stronger both physically and mentally, as well as getting better quality of sleep and being more productive.”
4. Elevate your waist
“Heartburn is brought on when acid leaks from your stomach and up to your oesophagus. This means lying down can make symptoms worse, which can make it tricky if you’re experiencing symptoms when it’s time for bed.”
Elevating your body from the waist up can help tackle this problem, by using gravity. “A common way of doing this is by adjusting the angle you’re sleeping at, using a wedge pillow. This will elevate your head, shoulders and torso while still keeping you comfortable,” says Thiyagarajan.
5. Steer clear of cigarette smoke
Smoking comes with many serious health risks, and on top of an increased risk of cancer and heart disease, it can also be a major trigger for heartburn.
“While you may think that smoking will provide relief when feeling uncomfortable, it will only make symptoms worse over time,” says Thiyagarajan. “This can also be true of passive smoking, so be wary of those smoking around you and try and remove yourself from those situations if need be.”
With a few simple measures, you should be able to find some much-needed relief from acid reflux, but if your symptoms persist for more than a week – or are recurrent – it’s a good idea to seek medical advice to find out the cause.