Heartburn, regurgitation, and other symptoms of GERD result when the acidic contents of the stomach back up (or reflux) up into the esophagus. Normally, the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), a ring of muscle at the top of the stomach, relaxes to allow the food you swallow into your stomach and then closes to keep the contents of the stomach in the stomach. When the LES relaxes inappropriately, the contents of the stomach can flow back up, irritating the sensitive lining of the esophagus, resulting in the symptoms you’re probably all too familiar with.
What are the causes of heartburn?
It’s thought that certain foods or behaviors are causes of heartburn. Many of those common acid reflux triggers are obvious. You know if you eat that chili dog, overeat at Thanksgiving, or indulge in that chocolate cake that you’ll likely suffer the consequences – with a bout of heartburn – but you may not know about some of these surprising acid reflux triggers.
Smoking cigarettes can result is a myriad of health complications, including triggering acid reflux and heartburn. Why? Nicotine, the chemical stimulant in tobacco, relaxes the LES, making an episode of reflux more likely. It’s also thought when you smoke your mouth makes less saliva, which normally protects the esophagus from stomach acid. There is no guarantee that giving up smoking will eradicate your heartburn, but it’s an important precaution.
Many common medications can trigger heartburn or make it worse, either by irritating the esophagus directly or by relaxing the LES. Common pain relievers, like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, may cause irritation of the esophagus. So can some antibiotics and certain supplements, like iron and potassium.
Some of the various types of blood pressure medicines can also trigger heartburn. For example, many blood pressure and heart disease medicines relax the LES, making it easy for your stomach acids to move up into your esophagus. Always let your doctor know if you think a new prescription or over-the-counter medication is making your heartburn worse. Your health care provider may be able to suggest another medication with fewer side effects.
Fish Oil Supplements
Fish oils are full of omega-3 fatty acids and are often touted for their possible health benefits, from protecting against heart disease to reducing inflammation. They are popular among those looking to improve their health and lifespan. Unfortunately, fish oil supplements can trigger a range of gastrointestinal issues, including diarrhea, heartburn, and indigestion. If you heave GERD, be sure to talk to your health care provider about taking these supplements since they can be one of the causes of heartburn. If you do decide to take them, try taking them with meals to reduce the risk of heartburn. Better yet, add fish to your weekly menu to get your dose of omega’3’s – it’s easier on the stomach and tasty, too.
Some studies have found that severe, sustained stress can cause increased heartburn symptoms. Why? That question is still up for debate, but it appears that stress changes the pain receptors in your brain, making you more physically aware of your symptoms. Additionally, stress appears to decrease the creation of substances that normally defend the stomach from the effects of acid, which could also increase the awareness of discomfort. Whatever happens in the brain and the body, those who experience acid reflux know that stress can certainly make them feel uncomfortable.
Learn more: Is stress giving you heartburn?
Tracking your acid reflux triggers
Heartburn can disrupt your life. It can restrict your menu selections, disrupt your sleep, and get in the way of your daily life. Knowing what triggers your heartburn and learning how to steer clear of those triggers can help you avoid the discomfort of acid reflux. Try keeping a food diary for a few weeks to identify your acid reflux triggers, so you can make smart diet and lifestyle changes and get your reflux under control once and for all.
Start with healthy treatment alternatives
Too many adults immediately look to proton pump inhibitors (PPIs such as Nexium and Prilosec) to relieve their heartburn, not knowing if acid reflux is the underlying cause. There is an important role for this medical alternative, but our medical experts, along with most GERD experts, agree that the risks of proton pump inhibitor medications is significant. A much better approach to dealing with heartburn symptoms caused by GERD is managing your BMI to 24 or less (a healthy target for those with GERD), diet modifications, and lifestyle changes.
Be sure you know the disease you are treating, then find the safest and most healthy treatment approach to symptom relief. If you are unsure, partner up with a GERD expert; they will accurately determine if your symptoms are due to GERD and then present all of your treatment options. Make this “your year” to find relief and good health!