Heartburn can leave you feeling helpless or frustrated – who wants to give up pepperoni pizza or fried foods? Fortunately, a few small changes in your daily routine can reduce, or even prevent, symptoms.
Find out what works – and how one sufferer found long-lasting relief…
When Sandy Bush, 56, of Canyon Country, CA., told his doctor that heartburn kept him up at night, it was the least of his problems. He was going through a painful divorce and concerned about his two young children.
His doctor’s reply: The breakup and digestive problems may be linked, since stress and anxiety can make heartburn symptoms worse.
Heartburn, like stress, is a common problem. Almost 40% of adults have heartburn at least once a month, according to the American College of Gastroenterology.
“It’s more common than depression and high cholesterol,” says Neil Stollman, MD, a gastroenterologist at Northern California Gastroenterology Consultants and chairman of the Department of Medicine at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, both in Oakland, CA.
Medications work by minimizing stomach acid, so less of it burns the esophagus. But what you eat and drink – and even how you sit – can keep symptoms at bay.
“Heartburn prevention is a balancing act,” says Jana Nalbandian, ND, a naturopathic doctor at Avante Medical Center in Anchorage, AK. She previously taught at Bastyr University, a naturopathic medical school near Seattle, WA.
The key is living your life to minimize upward pressure on the stomach that pushes acid past the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This muscle is the gateway between the esophagus and stomach. If it opens at the wrong time, stomach acid passes through to burn your esophagus, creating that heartburn pain.
If you think you might have heartburn, see your doctor. Then try these tips to reduce – and hopefully prevent – heartburn.
1. Maintain a healthy weight.
When belly fat presses against the stomach, it can push acid back up into the esophagus. The bottom line: “Lose weight and you’re less likely to suffer heartburn,” Dr. Stollman says.
But that’s easier said than done. And pregnancy adds a complication. Nearly half of pregnant women experience heartburn in the later stages, according to the American College of Gastroenterology.
While you’re working on your weight, avoid too-tight clothing. It closes off the small intestine, letting acid stay in your stomach too long and increasing the chances you’ll feel the burn. Even loosening your belt or opening your pants button helps, especially after a big meal. Natural Remedies for Heartburn
2. Eat smaller meals, and chew more.
Eating quickly, and too much, packs more food into the stomach than it can comfortably handle, pushing acid higher up in the stomach.
“Eat slowly, chew thoroughly, relax when you eat, and keep portion size moderate,” Dr. Stollman says.
The best first step: Sitting down to eat, instead of snacking on the run. When we’re pressed for time, we often gulp down meals. This creates a heartburn double-whammy, since stress increases both acid production and sensitivity to heartburn pain.
3. Watch what you eat.
Fatty foods spend more time in the stomach than fruits, vegetables, grains and beans. Overfilling the stomach with less-healthy food pushes acid upward, causing heartburn.
“That’s why pepperoni pizza is a classic heartburn trigger,” Dr. Stollman explains. “All that fatty meat and cheese sits in the stomach.”
Junk food isn’t the only danger: For some heartburn sufferers, spicy cuisine and acidic foods and drinks – including tomato sauce and orange juice – can bring on an attack. Keep a heartburn diary of what you eat and when symptoms hit to identify your food triggers.
4. Avoid certain medicines.
Certain drugs irritate the stomach, which may contribute to heartburn. These include tetracycline, iron and potassium supplements, and aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
Many drugs also weaken the LES, increasing heartburn risk. Estrogen, narcotics, the Valium family of tranquilizers, and some antidepressants and asthma medications all have this potential side effect.
5. Chew gum.
Anything that increases salivation can ease heartburn.
“Chemically, saliva is a base,” Nalbandian explains. “It neutralizes refluxing acid and washes it back into the stomach.”
Try chewing gum, especially after eating. In a study by the VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, NM, researchers asked 36 men to chew gum after meals. They found that the gum significantly reduced esophageal acid levels.
6. Sip herbal tea as Natural Remedies for Heartburn.
Several herbs have long histories as heartburn remedies: angelica, anise, caraway, coriander, chamomile and fennel.
The easiest way to increase your intake may be with a heartburn-soothing tea. Use one to two heaping teaspoons of these herbs – either alone or in combination – in a cup of boiling water. Steep until cool enough to drink. (With caraway seeds, use 1-2 teaspoons of chopped seeds.)
Chamomile may be your best bet, according to experts.
“Besides working well, it’s pleasant tasting and calming. It promotes relaxation after eating,” Nalbandian says.
But there’s a catch: Chamomile is related to the ragweed family. So if you’re allergic to that, you may have a reaction to chamomile too.
7. Sit up straight.
When you sit upright, or stand, gravity helps keep stomach acid where it belongs. Lying down puts acid in a better position to move through the LES into your esophagus.
“That’s why lying down after eating and big bedtime snacks are prime risk factors for heartburn,” Nalbandian says.
Eating dinner a few hours before bed and not napping right after a midday meal help you avoid this trigger.
Also, try raising the head of your bed about 6 inches. Bricks, pieces of wood or any other hard block work well.
Extra pillows, which seem like the easiest fix, can actually cause more harm than good. They tend to cause bending at the waist, which increases upward pressure on the stomach.
8. Take a walk.
Moving after meals, such as taking a half-hour stroll after dinner, can reduce esophageal acidity.
“You’re using gravity, and leisurely walking aids digestion,” Nalbandian says.
But that doesn’t mean you should run a 5K marathon or a take a half-day hike. Strenuous activity shuts down the digestive tract, keeping food in the stomach longer, she adds.
When Sandy Bush’s doctor first suggested lifestyle changes as a heartburn treatment, Bush knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
He loved greasy foods like pizza. At work, Bush often wolfed down lunch from a catering truck. In the evenings, he coached his kids’ sports teams, ate dinner late, often polishing off leftovers right before bedtime.
Fed up with not feeling well, he tried his doctor’s advice.
“I raised the head of my bed and stopped eating pizza and anything fried. I started taking sandwiches to work, and did my best to eat them slowly. If the kids had late games, I ate beforehand,” Bush says.
Over a few months, his heartburn gradually disappeared.
Fast-forward several years: Although he has relaxed some of these changes, he now understands how to keep his heartburn in check.
“If I have another bout of heartburn, I know how to deal with it. That feels good,” he says.
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