Millions of Canadians suffer from heartburn at least once a month, not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars they spend each year on antacids to provide relief from this ailment.
The chief symptom of heartburn is a burning sensation in the lower chest, just below or behind the breast bone, along with a sour or bitter taste in the throat and mouth.
The problem lies with the faulty functioning of the valve that controls the flow of food from the esophagus (food pipe) to the stomach. When this valve is not functioning properly or is weakened, or too much pressure is placed on it, acid backs up from the stomach to the esophagus, giving rise to a burning sensation.
The good news is that heartburn is highly preventable by a modification of lifestyle and the cultivation of good habits.
Here are some practical steps you could take to prevent heartburn:
- Maintain a healthy weight: Obesity and overweight give rise to a myriad of health problems and heartburn is one of them. Excess weight puts pressure on your abdomen, pushing up your stomach and causing acid reflux. Being overweight is a major risk factor for heartburn.
- Eat small meals frequently: Eat five small meals instead of two or three large meals. A large meal stays longer in the stomach and puts greater pressure on the oesophageal valve, increasing the chances of acid reflux.
- Loosen your belt: Wearing a tight belt puts greater pressure on the stomach and oesophageal valve, again causing reflux.
- Stay upright after eating: Stay upright for about three hours after eating to prevent reflux. Do not try to lift heavy objects off the floor or bend over to remove weeds from your garden.
- Mind your bedtime manners: Stop eating at least three hours before bedtime. If you’re particularly bothered by nighttime heartburn, elevate the head of your bed by about six to nine inches by placing a foam wedge (available at drug stores) under your upper body. Do not use pillows for this purpose.
- Know your heartburn triggers: Most people with heartburn have specific triggers. Common culprits are fatty and fried foods, spicy dishes, tomatoes and tomato products, citrus fruits, garlic, onions, colas, coffee and tea, and alcohol. Reduce or eliminate these foods one at a time and see how your heartburn responds. Some common medications could also trigger heartburn. Check with your doctor.
- Quit smoking: Smoking is associated with innumerable health problems, heartburn being one of them. Smoking stimulates the production of stomach acid, thus contributing to heartburn.
Although most cases of heartburn are mild and treatable by the above means, you should seek medical advice if your heartburn episodes are severe and frequent and over-the-counter antacids provide little relief.