Feeling the Burn: Heartburn Triggers, Symptoms and Relief

Heartburn actually has nothing to do with the heart. It’s so called because of the burning sensations felt in the chest, but it is not related to heart health at all. Heartburn is a digestion problem.

What causes heartburn?

The stomach has strong gastric acids that break down the food you eat. The stomach has a thick lining of mucus that protects it from the strongly acidic gastric juices. The esophagus—the pipe running from your mouth to your stomach—does not have this lining. When the valve between the stomach and esophagus is faulty, gastric acid can enter the esophagus and cause that familiar burn.

It’s difficult to pin down exact triggers for heartburn, because it varies widely from person to person. If you find yourself suffering from frequent attacks of heartburn, pay attention to what and when you’re eating. Keeping a food diary can help you notice patterns in your eating.

Greasy foods, large portions, and eating late at night, regardless of the actual foods eaten, are the three most common triggers of heartburn. Exercising right after meals can also cause it. Here are some specific foods that also commonly cause heartburn:

  • Red wine
  • Spicy foods like black pepper or raw onions
  • Chocolate
  • Citrus fruits
  • Tomatoes

How to treat heartburn

  • If you notice you get heartburn only after eating certain foods or having a particularly large portion, you may want to simply avoid the food or eat smaller meals. It’s easy, foolproof, and free.
  • Antacids like Tums or Maalox are the most well-known solutions for treating heartburn. They’re over-the-counter, fast-acting, and fairly inexpensive. They work by neutralizing the acid in your stomach. For fastest relief, chew the antacid tablets well. But note, if you have heart or kidney problems, consult your doctor before taking antacids.
  • If your heartburn is severe and doesn’t respond to antacids, you might want to try an H2 blocker, like Pepcid or Zantac. You can get it over-the-counter or by prescription. These drugs cause your stomach to reduce acid production, which in turn reduces your heartburn. They tend to work best if you take them an hour before eating.
  • If you need something even stronger, your doctor can prescribe a proton pump inhibitor like Prevacid or Prilosec. These medications inhibit some of the millions of “pumps” in your stomach that make acid. They can take up to four days to start working. If you think this is something that would help you, talk with your doctor to see if it’s right for you.

All of the medications available for heartburn have known side effects, so make sure to check with your doctor before starting a new regimen.