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Getting to the Heart of Heartburn
General Wellness

Getting to the Heart of Heartburn

By Your Health Staff
Posted: February 22, 2024

While heartburn sounds like a type of heart disease, it actually has nothing to do with your heart. It has everything to do with your gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Where the Burn Begins

When you eat, food moves to your esophagus, which connects your mouth to your stomach. As soon as the food enters your stomach, a band of muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter closes.

If the esophageal sphincter doesn't close, stomach acids can backwash into the esophagus, a process known as reflux. Over time, that acid can cause heartburn.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, typical heartburn symptoms can last minutes or hours. 

However long yours last, they may include:

  • Acidic taste in your mouth
  • Burning sensation in your chest or throat
  • Choking on backwashed acid
  • Dry cough
  • Hoarseness
  • Nausea
  • Stomach noises
  • Swallowing difficulty

What Causes Heartburn?

There are many reasons you may experience heartburn.

A few common causes include:


Overeat, and you may experience heartburn. You're also more likely to feel the burn if you eat fatty, spicy foods, chocolate or drink alcohol. Carbonation, peppermint, tomato-based food products and acidic foods like citrus fruits may also result in heartburn.


While sometimes necessary for treating anxiety, depression, Parkinson's disease or high blood pressure, medications for those conditions may lead to heartburn. Birth control and other medications can have the same side effects.

Underlying Health Conditions

The most common cause of heartburn is chronic reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. A hiatal hernia can also result in reflux. With this type of hernia, the top of your stomach pushes into the chest cavity.

Preventing Heartburn

The National Institutes of Health reports that about 15 million Americans experience daily heartburn symptoms. With a few steps, you can reduce your risk.

Steps to try out include the following:

Avoid Food Triggers 

If you notice heartburn after eating citrus, spicy foods or other foods or drinks, avoid that trigger when possible. 

Chill Out

Stress can cause your stomach to produce more stomach acid than usual. Deal with stress in your life through meditation, tai chi, or other relaxation techniques and seek professional help when needed.

Dress for Comfort

Tight clothing and belts put pressure on your stomach. On top of being uncomfortable, it may encourage acid reflux.

Eat Less

Smaller meals decrease the likelihood of reflux. Additionally, eating more lightly helps with maintaining a healthy weight. Since being overweight or obese increases your risk for heartburn, losing excess weight may help ease heartburn symptoms and keep the burn at bay.

Elevate Your Head

By raising the head of your bed, you can help gravity keep food in your stomach while you sleep. Elevate the head of your bed approximately 6 inches.

Put Down Tobacco Products

Smoking or chewing tobacco products weakens the esophageal sphincter. Stop smoking to help keep stomach acids where they belong.

Wait to Exercise or Sleep

Don't work out or bend over immediately after eating. Also, finish eating three or four hours before going to bed, and sleep on your left side.


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Cooling Off the Burn

Home remedies may be less effective than over-the-counter or prescription medications if heartburn affects you. However, trying a safe home remedy, such as chewing gum, won't hurt.

Some people chew gum after meals or drink a bit of apple cider vinegar and insist they find relief. Unfortunately, there is little research that backs these claims.

Medications proven to help include: 


Available as an over-the-counter treatment, antacids provide quick relief. When symptoms flare up, take one to neutralize stomach acid. 

Histamine-2 (H2) blockers

These medications help reduce how much acid your stomach produces. Less acid reduces your risk for reflux and heartburn.

Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)

This option may significantly reduce your stomach's acid production. It is available for over-the-counter use when heartburn occurs at least twice weekly. However, please don't use it continuously. Take PPIs no more than 14 days in a row, three times a year. A prescription version helps with more severe GI problems.

When It's More Than Heartburn

While people can typically treat heartburn at home, some symptoms indicate a more serious problem.

Visit your primary care provider if you experience any of the following:

  • Black or bloody stools
  • Chest pain accompanied by sweating
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Neck and/or shoulder pain
  • Pain that occurs with physical activity
  • Painful or difficult swallowing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Two weeks of heartburn that occurs three or more times each week
  • Vomiting blood

Need a hand getting rid of heartburn? 
Find a doctor at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.