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Why Heartburn Happens

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Updated July 08, 2014

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Heartburn is that burning sensation in the middle of your chest you can get after a meal. It's a common condition affecting more than 40 percent of all Americans (approximately 108 million people) at least once a month.

Not everyone, however, suffers from heartburn, even when they eat spicy foods. For millions of people, however, heartburn can be a sign of a chronic condition.

Heartburn, Acid Reflux or GERD?

Anyone can have occasional heartburn, such as after eating a spicy meal. You can manage this type of heartburn by following these prevention tips for occasional heartburn. Frequent and recurring heartburn, however, may be a symptom of a more serious condition: Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD.

GERD is a disease in which acid from the stomach flows back (or "refluxes") into the esophagus, which can cause irritation and damage to the lining of the esophagus. Some degree of acid reflux is normal, and typically occurs after meals. Episodes are usually brief, and cause no symptoms. Frequent symptoms, such as heartburn and regurgitation, are an indication that potential injury to tissues has occurred from longer and more frequent acid exposure than normal. In general, damage occurs because of the following reasons: stomach contents are refluxed too frequently, the contents of the stomach are too acidic, or the contents cannot be cleared from the esophagus fast enough. For more information, please read about GERD causes, diagnosing GERD, GERD treatment, and complications of GERD.

What Causes Heartburn

Heartburn can occur for a number of reasons. These include what you eat, some medications you may take, lifestyle habits you have. Being aware of what the triggers can be will help you with controlling the heartburn.

Heartburn and What You Eat

There are certain foods that can worsen heartburn symptoms. Some foods can weaken the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), allowing stomach contents to flow up into the esophagus, while other foods will increase the production of stomach acid. The foods that most often trigger heartburn are fried, fatty, or spicy foods. There a other foods heartburn sufferers should avoid, along with foods that are safe for most heartburn sufferers.

Heartburn and Medications

It isn't just food that can cause heartburn. Sometimes it's the medications we take to treat other conditions that can be the culprit. Some medications can cause heartburn by relaxing the LES, allowing stomach contents to reflux back up into the esophagus. Some of these include some of the medications used for the treatment of asthma, chronic pain, antidepressants, and heart-related conditions. You can read this list of medications that can trigger heartburn.

Heartburn and Lifestyle Habits

The chances of heartburn occurring can increase because of our lifestyle habits -- what we do and how we do it. Heartburn symptoms can often be relieved if sufferers make a few lifestyle changes. These include when we eat, when and how we sleep, and what daily activities should be avoided. For a list of lifestyle changes for heartburn prevention, please read this article.

Medical Conditions Causing Heartburn

There are several medical conditions, including GERD, where heartburn can be a symptom. These include:

Sources:
"Heartburn, Gastroesophageal Reflux (GER), and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)." NIH Publication No. 07–0882 May 2007. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). 8 Aug 2007

"Is it just a little HEARTBURN or something more serious?." American College of Gastroenterology. 8 Aug 2007

"Heartburn and GERD FAQ." American College of Gastroenterology. 8 Aug 2007

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  3. Heartburn / GERD
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  5. Heartburn Basics
  6. What Causes Heartburn?

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