Heartburn is an irritation of the tube that connects your throat and stomach, called the esophagus. Heartburn is caused by stomach acid moving up from your stomach into your esophagus, resulting in the burning, painful feeling in your chest or upper belly. Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux – heartburn describes the pain felt due to acid reflux.
The condition can range from simply irritating to entirely debilitating. Though some cases are best addressed with prescription medication through a physician’s consultation, some people find symptom relief from holistic alternatives and lifestyle changes.
Despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with your heart, though some of the symptoms of heartburn mimic those of a heart attack. Aside from the burning sensation, people with heartburn may experience:
- Pain in your chest while you’re lying down or bending over
- An acidic, bitter, hot taste in the back of your throat
- A hard time swallowing
The amount of time that an episode of heartburn lasts varies from person to person, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.
Causes of Heartburn
Heartburn often begins as a result of an issue with the muscular valve called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). Typically, the LES (with the help of gravity) keeps stomach acid in the stomach, and only opens to allow food in or gas out. But if the LES opens too often or doesn’t close completely, stomach acid can make its way into the esophagus and cause heartburn.
A malfunctioning LES is often caused by two common problems: overeating and too much pressure put on the stomach. Overeating puts too much food in your stomach, which doesn’t allow the LES to close completely. Too much pressure on the stomach can be caused by things like pregnancy, constipation, and obesity.
Certain foods can also increase stomach acid and relax the LES, leading to heartburn, including:
Certain medications, stress, sleep deprivation, smoking, and high levels of progesterone that come with pregnancy can also lead to heartburn.
Heartburn vs GERD
Like with acid reflux, heartburn is a symptom of Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD is a chronic form of acid reflux and is classified by bouts of heartburn more than twice a week and/or causes inflammation in your esophagus. GERD isn’t always triggered by food or lifestyle but can be due to a physical deformation of the lower esophageal sphincter. In these particular cases, GERD can only be managed with prescription medication or surgery.
Six Natural Remedies for Heartburn
Like with any holistic treatment, consult your doctor before beginning. Some holistic treatments for heartburn can interact with certain medications or may not be best for your unique circumstances. Some strategies for preventing heartburn include watching what, when, and how you eat. Avoiding triggering foods, finishing meals two to three hours before bedtime, and eating more slowly can help alleviate heartburn.
If you’re trying to find relief from heartburn or prevent it altogether, here are six natural remedies for heartburn.
Apple cider vinegar
Though it may seem counterintuitive – adding acid to prevent acid reflux? - apple cider vinegar is a popular holistic treatment for a variety of ailments. In some people, heartburn is caused by too little stomach acid, so it’s thought that consuming apple cider vinegar will reintroduce acid back into the stomach. No studies have proven this theory, though. As mentioned above, it’s important to note that only a doctor can help you properly determine your stomach acid levels, so if you aren’t sure, check before adding new, potentially triggering food items.
Chewing gum stimulates saliva production, which acts as a buffer to your stomach acid. Chewing gum also increases how often you swallow, pushing the stomach acid back where it’s supposed to be. When choosing chewing gum, be sure to opt for sugar-free versions, and avoid peppermint as it may aggravate your heartburn.
Ginger has been used for hundreds of years in traditional Eastern medicine, acting as a natural anti-inflammatory agent. The phenolic compounds in ginger may relieve irritation in the gastrointestinal tract and can reduce the likelihood of stomach acid flowing back into your esophagus. Ginger’s anti-inflammatory properties were tested in a 2011 study, which found that participants taking ginger supplements had reduced inflammation markers after one month.
Recent research suggests that probiotics – when combined with lifestyle changes – can reduce the effects of heartburn. Probiotics can also aid in the digestion process, preventing food from sitting in the stomach and digestive tract for people with low digestive motility. You can take probiotics as a supplement or get them by including probiotic-rich foods in your diet.
Baking soda and water
The alkalinity of baking soda can reduce the level of acid in your stomach. Popular OTC tablets are comprised of mostly baking soda but taste much better than a glass of water mixed with sodium bicarbonate.
Bananas are a low-acid fruit that are gentle on the digestive system. They can help neutralize stomach acid by soothing an irritated esophageal lining. Bananas are alkaline and rich in pectin, a soluble fiber that helps keep food moving through the digestive tract, preventing potential backup.
Lifestyle changes to prevent heartburn
Lifestyle changes that can improve heartburn include quitting smoking, losing weight, and reducing stress. Milk has also long been thought to treat heartburn, but most experts agree that dairy isn’t a long-term treatment. While milk can temporarily buffer stomach acid, the fat in dairy can actually cause the stomach to produce more acid.
Reducing stress is easier said than done, but chronic stress takes a toll on our bodies, including slowing down digestion. The longer food sits in your stomach, the more likely you are to experience heartburn. Changing your diet can reduce stress levels, too.
Smoking reduces the amount of saliva you produce and impacts the effectiveness of the LES, both of which make heartburn more likely. Quitting smoking can reduce the frequency and severity of acid reflux and, in some cases, even eliminate it.
Excess weight – particularly weight we carry around our midsections – puts extra pressure on the stomach, increasing the risk of heartburn. Losing weight is an intensive process and requires long-term commitment. If you’re having trouble getting started or need some direction, working with wellness professionals like Health Coaches offers an opportunity to lean on experts for guidance and accountability.
The Bottom Line
Even with lifestyle changes, you may still experience heartburn. You may find relief in over-the-counter remedies or prescription medications, but changing your diet and lifestyle are holistic first steps to preventing heartburn.