Heartburn can be tricky self-diagnose. It normally starts as an uneasy feeling. Often we might better understand it if we use the term indigestion. In Latin, it translates to overly full stomach. You can often feel a burning pain in the chest after eating and this discomfort can also occur at night or in the morning. The pain can often worsen lying flat or if you bend over to pick something up. Another common symptom is a bitter or acidic taste in the mouth.

It’s recommended that if you start having symptoms more frequently to go see your doctor. Alarm or red flag symptoms occur when heartburn is severe enough to cause complications such as esophagitis or gastritis. At this point, symptoms may persist despite over the counter anti-reflux medications. You may have trouble swallowing (dysphagia), have nausea or vomiting, or even start losing weight due to inappetence.

Heartburn occurs when stomach acid refluxes back into your esophagus or your food pipe. The lower esophageal sphincter, unfortunately, can relax abnormally resulting in acid reflux or heartburn. Risk factors or habits that can exacerbate heartburn include obesity, binge eating, excessive caffeine, alcohol intake (especially beer or wine), citrus products, spicy foods, and excess fried/fatty foods. Pregnancy can also increase your risk for developing heartburn due to increased intraabdominal pressure leading to refluxing of stomach contents up into the esophagus.

You may not realize it, but in western society, overindulgence and a sedentary lifestyle has led to an enormous prevalence of heartburn. It is believed that over 30 million Americans suffer from heartburn (gastroesophageal reflux disease). By recognizing these symptoms, and understanding what causes it, you are better equipped to tackle the problem before needing to start prescription anti-reflux medications.

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Dr. Minhas, M.D.

Board-certified internal medicine (ABIM)