Understanding Heartburn

Heartburn is a painful, burning sensation in the lower chest or throat that occurs when stomach acid backs up (or 'refluxes') and irritates the sensitive lining of the esophagus. The esophagus is the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach.

Normally, the lower esophageal sphincter acts like a trapdoor, letting food down into the stomach, while preventing stomach acids from coming back up into the esophagus. When it becomes too relaxed, it can allow stomach acid to flow backward into the esophagus, resulting in heartburn.

Who Gets Heartburn?

60 million American adults are affected by heartburn1, with an estimated 30 million adults suffering from frequent heartburn2 (defined as heartburn that occurs two or more days per week).

Frequent Heartburn Facts2

To better understand and treat frequent heartburn, it is important to first identify common risk factors and facts:

  • Fact: eating before bed triggers heartburn. You may experience worsening or more frequent heartburn if you routinely eat late at night. Try to eat at least 2-3 hours before bedtime so your body has time to digest before you lie down. Also, elevating the head of your bed may provide additional relief. According to a new heartburn incidence survey, 42% of frequent heartburn sufferers report trouble sleeping because of this condition.
  • Fact: holiday heartburn is real. When Americans see a holiday dinner spread, they find that their eyes are bigger than their stomachs. In fact, when asked to name their worst "heartburn days of the year," those with frequent heartburn most often cited Thanksgiving (43%), followed by Christmas/Hanukkah (35%), and July 4th and New Year's Eve (both tied at 14%).
  • Fact: smoking can worsen heartburn: When individuals smoke, it can cause the muscle between the stomach and esophagus to relax, which can contribute to stomach acid refluxing back into the esophagus.
  • Fact: certain foods can provoke heartburn: People with frequent heartburn (74% of frequent heartburn sufferers overall) report that certain foods and beverages can trigger their heartburn. According to the survey, acidic foods (41%), spicy foods (32%), rich or fatty foods (24%), caffeinated beverage (16%), alcohol (7%) and dairy products (7%) trigger frequent heartburn episodes. Eating too quickly, overeating / eating large meals and being overweight are also related heartburn triggers.
  • Fact: heartburn poses real risks: Frequent heartburn that goes untreated can increase the risk of developing more serious conditions, such as esophageal damage and throat cancer.

Easy-to-Digest Heartburn Tips

The following tips may help ease or prevent frequent heartburn

  • Do not lie flat or bend over after eating
  • Do not wear tight-fitting clothing around the stomach
  • Do not eat before bedtime
  • Raise the head of your bed
  • Avoid heartburn-causing foods such as rich, spicy, fatty or fried foods, chocolate, caffeine, alcohol and certain fruits and vegetables
  • Eat slowly and avoid big meals
  • If overweight, lose weight
  • Quit Smoking


1 American College of Gastroenterology http://s3.gi.org/patients/pdfs/UnderstandGERD.pdf
2 Data extrapolated from a Harris Interactive study conducted for Perrigo in 2007