The cause? "To a large extent, we don't know," says Gershon. "It sometimes is associated with stress or a hiatal hernia. Or there may be too-frequent openings of the sphincter that separates the esophagus from the stomach."
Medical treatments for heartburn have boomed over recent years, and a variety of choices are available over-the-counter. The first line of defense is an antacid, such as Tums or Rolaids, which contains an alkaline mineral like calcium or magnesium to counteract acidity. These work almost instantly, but may not last as long as other treatments. H2 blockers, such as Zantac and Pepcid, prevent your system from producing as much acid as it usually does; taken prior to a meal, they can often stop heartburn before it starts. The end-all treatment for serious cases is a proton-pump inhibitor, such as Prilosec, which halts the production of stomach acid at its source.
The occasional antacid won't hurt anyone, but purging your stomach acid is unwise over the long term. "What you eat isn't sterile, and you have more of a chance of getting an infection without acid to kill the bacteria," Gershon says. He recommends that if you do take acid-blockers, use the lowest dose you need for as short a period as possible. If you practice a few healthful behaviors, it's likely you won't have to reach for an acid-blocker to calm a burning gut.
If you're overweight, the answer is simple: Losing the extra pounds "should help mitigate heartburn," says Gershon. A study at the Queen's University of Belfast, Ireland, found that obese patients were three times more likely to suffer from GERD. Eating smaller meals can help, too.
Smoking is another culprit, upping the production of stomach acid and relaxing the esophageal sphincter. In a study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, participants who abstained from tobacco for 48 hours found that their heartburn episodes more than doubled when they went back to smoking.
If you live right and still have heartburn, try these solutions:
- Cut the tension. If your problem flares up in times of stress, try yoga or deep breathing. A study at the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that people who practiced relaxation techniques lowered both their heartburn symptoms and acid exposure in the esophagus. Regular aerobic exercise can also help keep stressful situations from affecting you.
- Sleep better. Some people are more likely to get heartburn in a prone position. "Lying on the left side of the body has the lowest risk of acid reflux compared to lying down in any other position, including sleeping on the right side," says Minocha. "Patients should raise the head end of the bed with 4- to 6-inch blocks-using an extra pillow is not a substitute." Also, if you don't eat anything less than three hours before bedtime, you may improve sleep quality and cut down on heartburn.
- Drink tea. A post-meal beverage can reduce acid-related symptoms. Try stomach-soothing herbal teas with chamomile, licorice or ginger.