If you’ve ever experienced burning or discomfort in your chest after eating a large, spicy or greasy meal, then you’re probably familiar with heartburn.
According to the Digestive Health Foundation, heartburn is common and almost everyone experiences it at some time in their life.
Heartburn is a painful, burning sensation in your lower central chest caused by acid rising up your oesophagus (food pipe) from your stomach. It can happen during the day, after meals or, for some unlucky people, at night while asleep.
Heartburn is most commonly caused by gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, when the valve to the stomach doesn’t close efficiently enough and acid flows back up from your stomach. This is often known as acid reflux.
While many of us get occasional reflux, for some people it can be frequent and troubling. So we spoke to a doctor who specialises in this area to find out what helps heartburn, and how to know when it’s time to investigate it further.
The good news is there are some simple lifestyle and dietary changes you can take to help beat the burn.
1. Identify trigger foods
Love to cook up a rich, spicy curry? Unfortunately, this could be the cause of your heartburn.
“For many people, food is the cause of heartburn, particularly if you notice it comes on after eating,” according to Dr Geoff Hebbard, Director, Gastroenterology and Hepatology at The Royal Melbourne Hospital.
“If you get heartburn after eating, try to identify the trigger and limit those foods. Spicy or fatty foods are common culprits,” he said.
Other foods that are notorious for causing heartburn include onions, garlic, alcohol, citrus fruits, tomatoes, coffee and fizzy drinks.
2. Eat smaller, well-timed meals
As well as the types of food you eat, the way you eat is important, Dr Hebbard says.
“Try having smaller meals rather than larger ones,” he says.
Also, if you find your heartburn coming on at night and keeping you awake, then try not to eat anything for a couple of hours before you go to bed. In these situations, many people have their main meal at lunch and keep their evening meal small and light.
3. Address other causes
Sometimes heartburn can be triggered (or not helped) by other factors – such as being overweight, smoking or your body being in particular positions.
If you’re carrying a little extra weight, then Dr Hebbart says losing even a few kilograms can make a big difference.
If you smoke, then quitting may also help.
Sometimes, even certain forms of exercise or straining, for example when picking up heavy objects, can make heartburn worse.
If you’re suffering from heartburn at night, try to keep your head elevated while in bed, says Dr Hebbard. Prop yourself up with a couple of pillows, if this isn’t too uncomfortable. This will help to prevent the flow of acid up from your stomach.
4. Try over-the-counter medication
Sometimes diet and lifestyle modifications are just not enough. In this instance, it may be useful to consider medication, according to Dr Hebbard.
Dr Hebbard says there are different types of over-the-counter medication you can buy without a prescription that can help. He said you should talk to your GP or local pharmacist about what medication is right for you.
Sometimes, people will only need to be on medication for a certain period of time to get relief, Dr Hebbard adds.
5. Investigate further
If you feel you’ve tried everything to settle your heartburn without success, then talk to your doctor about other options. There may be some other medications or lifestyle modifications that can be trialled.
Importantly, if you have any other more serious symptoms – including unexplained weight loss or vomiting blood – then you should see your local doctor immediately,” Dr Hebbard said.
Depending on your situation, your doctor may recommend an endoscopy, which is a diagnostic test where the doctor puts a tube with a tiny camera down your throat to look inside your throat and stomach.
However, Dr Hebbard says that there isn’t always a need for an endoscopy particularly if the individual is young and otherwise healthy, or there are no concerning symptoms.
But for most of us who experience unwelcome heartburn, there is a lot you can do to help with diet, lifestyle and medication.