How to understand heartburn

November 4, 2015

Heartburn in all its intensities affects millions of Canadians every day. You can go a long way to relieving this unpleasant condition by following these steps.

How to understand heartburn

Heartburn basics

Despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with your heart: it’s the result of a mechanical problem in your digestive tract called gastroesophageal reflux, which occurs when stomach acid splashes back and upward into your esophagus, the tube connecting the back of your throat to your stomach.

What happens when you have heartburn

Heartburn happens because a valve between your esophagus and stomach — the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) — normally clamped tight during digestion, has weakened.

When simple heartburn is a frequent event, and acid damages the lining of the esophagus, the condition is called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.

While your stomach is built to handle powerful digestive juices, your esophagus is not. Hence, the burning sensation in the centre of your chest during heartburn is truly just that — an acid burn.

Types and effects of heart burn

You might also experience episodes of a hot acidy taste, feel a lump in your throat or even have a chronic cough similar to asthma sufferers, which can occur when acid splashes down your breathing tube.
Over time, stomach acid can even wear down your tooth enamel. And the constant erosion of the internal lining of your esophagus can lead to a more serious disorder called Barrett’s esophagus.

Obesity and heartburn

You're more likely to have chronic heartburn if you're significantly overweight, if you smoke, if you take medications that make your lower esophageal sphincter relax or if you have certain medical conditions. At least 25 percent of pregnant women also experience heartburn because increased hormone levels affect the LES, causing it to stretch farther open than usual.

Dealing with heartburn: steps

With the advice of a medical professional, there are several types you can take to tackle heart burn. They are:

  • Medications to soothe the pain and discomfort of heartburn.
  • Lifestyle changes to address the root of the problem.
  • If all else fails, surgery and other procedures to correct the anatomical problems that lead to heartburn.

Take control

  • Drink a large glass of warm water. This will wash the misplaced acid back down and ease your pain. If water isn't handy, chew a stick or two of gum to produce more saliva.
  • Get rid of the extra pillows. While it’s good to have your whole upper body raised when lying down, elevating just your head leads to worse heartburn symptoms.
  • Avoid stooping or bending. This bumps up the pressure in your gut, making heartburn worse. Crouch if you need to pick up something.
  • Keep a heartburn diary. Record the time of each episode, and what seemed to contribute to it. This will make it easier to determine which lifestyle changes and treatments will work for you.

Support for sufferers

You can find good information on heartburn as well as a comprehensive set of related resources and Internet links at the website of the Canadian Association of Gastroenterology ( or 1-888-780-0007).

Heartburn relief

Heartburn can be treated successfully with the right approach. These tips will help you tackle this unpleasant condition with success and ease.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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