Heartburn, also known as acid reflux, is a common condition experienced by many, characterised by a burning sensation in the chest. But what exactly causes heart burn? Understanding this is crucial in determining the best ways to prevent and treat it.
This blog post aims to shed light on the causes of heartburn, helping you understand the intricacies of this condition better.
What is Heartburn?
Before diving into the causes, let’s first define what heartburn is. Heartburn is an uncomfortable burning sensation that starts in the stomach and often rises up to the throat. Contrary to its name, heartburn does not affect your heart.
It occurs when stomach acid backs up into the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach (oesophagus).
The Role of the LES
A key player in the cause of heartburn is the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a circular band of muscle located at the bottom of your esophagus. When functioning properly, the LES acts as a one-way valve that lets food and drink into the stomach but prevents stomach acids from splashing back into the esophagus.
However, when the LES doesn’t close completely or opens too often, stomach acid can rise into the esophagus, causing that all-too-familiar burning sensation. This process is medically referred to as acid reflux, and chronic or severe cases can lead to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
What Causes the LES to Malfunction?
Numerous factors can cause the LES to malfunction, leading to heartburn. Here are some of the most common:
- Dietary Habits: Certain foods and beverages can trigger heartburn by relaxing the LES. These include spicy foods, fatty or fried foods, chocolate, coffee, alcohol, and acidic foods like citrus fruits and tomatoes.
- Overeating: Eating large meals can put pressure on the LES, causing it to open and allow acid into the esophagus. Eating smaller, more frequent meals can help avoid this.
- Obesity: Excess body weight puts additional pressure on the stomach and LES, making it more likely for stomach acid to back up into the esophagus.
- Smoking: Cigarette smoke contains chemicals that can weaken the LES, increasing the risk of heartburn.
- Pregnancy: During pregnancy, the growing fetus can put pressure on the stomach, which can lead to heartburn.
- Certain Medications: Some drugs, including certain pain relievers, blood pressure medications, and some antidepressants, can interfere with the function of the LES, increasing the likelihood of heartburn.
- Hiatal Hernia: This condition occurs when the upper part of your stomach bulges through the diaphragm, the large muscle separating your abdomen and chest. A hiatal hernia can weaken the LES and increase the risk for acid reflux.
Understanding what causes heartburn is the first step towards managing it effectively. If you frequently experience heartburn, it may be worthwhile to evaluate your lifestyle and dietary habits.
You can make several changes to your diet and habits that can help reduce heartburn, such as maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding trigger foods, not eating before bedtime, and quitting smoking. If these changes do not alleviate your symptoms, it is recommended to consult with a healthcare provider.
Remember, occasional heartburn is common and no cause for alarm. However, frequent heartburn can indicate a more serious condition like GERD that requires medical attention. Always listen to your body and seek help when needed.